Lux or Lanzac?
Almost as though to ease the grief at the death of Grandpapa, M. Colombe unexpectedly gave me some news; it renewed the thread of hope which I thought cut. He had spoken several times to one of his friends, the impresario Régis Durcourt, and with his help achieved what I hadn’t even dared hope for. I was included as a contestant in the contest ‘Song Parade’, which is organised by Guy Lux, and was to arrive in the capital on 20th November, on Saturday.
Tripping over my feet, I ran to my friend Françoise. For a long time I had worn a fringe, but perhaps her mother would now be able to give me a more fashionable Parisian hairstyle – one that would help make me look more grown up, perhaps? Françoise’s mother cuts my hair so that locks brush against my cheeks, and a strand stands slightly upraised on the crown of my head.
- ‘On seeing you, the Parisians will open their mouths in astonishment,’ she assures me.
Papa is of quite another opinion and asks in confusion:
- ‘Marcelle, you don’t find that she has a clownish look?’
- ‘No, of course not,’ says Mama decisively, wanting above all to lift my spirits. ‘Don’t you remember, Roger, when Mireille went to kindergarten she also had a short cut…’
What a disaster! And I had hoped to look older! I get out my large suitcase, the same old black dress, and my gilded cross from Lourdes. And now I’m on the train again, all alone, taking away with me heaps of the usual advice. Soon I find myself on Rue d’Aboukir once more in the company of Magali, who meets me at the station.
- ‘I didn’t doubt for a moment that you’d return. Let’s go! We’ll drink a cup of coffee.’
We go into the bistro at the corner. Here it is lots of fun. The café is constantly visited by the journalists from the big building that exits on the Rue du Louvre.
- ‘Is it they who tell the latest news to the papers?’
Magali nods her head affirmatively. Why are they then so cheerful, since very often the news are sad? Magali replies that doctors don’t cry from morning till night either, although they have many seriously ill patients… she is absolutely delighted that this time they will be hearing me in Olympia, the concert hall .
- ‘No, seriously, can you believe it?! Right now, on the bills out there, is the name of Johnny Halliday. How I want to be able to go there with you!’
The only thing I understand is that I will be heard in Olympia – the castle, the palace, the temple of Edith Piaf! I will enter the sanctuary where she herself performed only three years ago… the mere though of it stuns me. If I dared, I would kiss the stage.
- ‘My name is Jacqueline Duforest.’
- ‘Good day, Madame Duforest.’
- ‘I work with Guy Lux.’
- ‘I know it, Madame.’
In Avignon we all knew about the show 'Song Parade'. Next to Jacqueline Duforest I find serenity. I sense that she is ‘well planted on her feet’, as they say in our parts. She has a cheerful face and full lips.
- ‘What will you sing for us, my chicklet?’ (That is a favourite expression of the Parisians!)
- ‘l’Hymne à l’amour’.
Jacqueline Duforest is obviously surprised. I expected it… Mme Collière wouldn’t have been in raptures about my choice. ‘This song is still too much for you,’ she says to me each time. And each time I stubbornly stick to my decision. Of course, it hadn’t brought me success at the qualifying contest in Avignon, but in my opinion it is also true that it is Piaf’s most beautiful song, because she composed it herself, and also because the words move one deeply.
- ‘Of whom do you think,’ Matite asked me once, ‘when you sing: ‘Je me ferais teindre en blonde si tu me le demandais’ ('I would become blonde if you asked me to')? Of Michel?’ I shrugged my shoulders.
- ‘Of no one. I assure you. Of no one…’
The only man who took up my thoughts is Papa, always so kind and proud of me. And also Grandpapa. I was even afraid of bursting into tears when I sang: ‘Si un jour la vie t’arrache à moi…’ (‘If life separates us one day…’), but I managed not to. How many tears did I shed when he was dying; and now my eyes were completely dry. Maybe because I had already suffered much anxiety that day? Or maybe because I chased away with all my strength the reproach that I hadn’t dared to light him a candle and entreat him to live? Or perhaps because then, the shade of the great Piaf was a shield to me?
- ‘Everything’s well,’ said Jacqueline Duforest. ‘And next Friday we’ll release you in the section ‘Hopes’. Goodbye, my chicklet!’
Inside, I rejoiced.
- ‘Goodbye, Madame!’
And here she suddenly added:
- ‘Do you know who was present in the hall? Johnny Halliday himself! He’s returned from army service. And will again perform in Olympia…’
She is obviously excited by this news. But with us, in the Mathieu family, rock music isn’t regarded highly. If it had been Tino Rossi, this news would have kept Mama awake at night! Perhaps it would have impressed me much more if I had known how Halliday had reacted to my singing: ‘The little one has a wonderful voice, but the memory of Edith Piaf is still too fresh.' But these words of his Jacqueline Duforest passed on to me much later.
The apartment on Rue d’Aboukir seems to tremble from my vocals, and suddenly the phone rings. It is M. Colombe.
- ‘Ah, Monsieur Colombe, everything is well! I’m participating in the ‘Parade’ next Friday. Please tell Mama that I’m leaving by the morning train tomorrow.’
- ‘No, you’re staying in Paris! Guess what’s happened?! You’re to participate in ‘Télé-Dimanche’! Yes! Yes! In ‘Télé-Dimanche’! It will be presented by Marcillac!’
I am dumbfounded. And he, on the other end of the line, happily excited.
- ‘As soon as you left, your mother received a telegram – you’re invited to Paris, to Théâtre 102! But they made a mistake: the telegram was addressed to Monique Mathieu, who lives in Croix-des-Ciseaux! While the postman figured out what was what… anyway, Roger Lanzac awaits your performance in the program ‘Game of Fortune’…’
- ‘’Game of Fortune’? When?’
- ‘I told you, immediately go to the rehearsal of ‘Télé-Dimanche’! Tomorrow we’ll all be at our TV sets, to see how you perform! Hello! Hello! Your mother says to drink a lime infusion tonight before bed, and the same tomorrow before performing, but then with honey!’
I feverishly grab my music. To catch a taxi! I rush into the concert hall Théâtre 102 and hear:
- ‘Roger! Roger! She’s here, the girl from Avignon!’
It must be the director’s assistant. He looks as though he has been waiting just for me. It is so nice of them! Yes, but why is Roger Lanzac beside himself with rage? And his eyes are bulging from their sockets! He explodes:
- ‘Who taught you to kill two birds with one stone? It seems you are intending to perform in Guy Lux’s program too! Well, there could be no question of that! You’ll have to make a choice!’
Not really understanding anything, I timidly ask:
- ‘Because we don’t do that! You can’t perform in two shows at once!’
Where did this problem suddenly come from?! I was supposed to perform not ‘at once’, but with a break of a few days! And besides… they hadn’t sent me any news for eight months, except to tell me that I shouldn’t count on a performance before 1966! And was it my fault that the two invitations had come one after the other! That was just my luck! All these arguments whirl through my head, but I stand there without opening my mouth, utterly shell-shocked… the nice blonde lady, who spoke to me last time, says kindly:
- ‘Don’t be disappointed! The night before the show everyone’s nerves are stretched like strings! And so, who do you choose? Guy Lux or Lanzac?’
- ‘I would prefer to perform for both!’
- ‘But that’s impossible! Understand, my chicklet (ah, she calls me the same thing Jacqueline Duforest does. It really is a favourite expression of the Parisians), they are in a way rivals. So you’ll have to choose your camp.’
I remember the camp over which blew the standard of François the 1st, not for nothing did I pore over history, preparing for my school certificate; but it didn’t even enter my head that, in our time, there exist different camps on television! I am still thinking, and the blonde lady is starting to lose her patience. In Guy Lux’s programme I would perform only once, whereas the programme ‘Game of Fortune’ was set up the same way as our Avignon contest ‘They sing in my quarter’: if I won a large enough number of votes, I would perform again a week later.
- ‘I have made a choice,’ I say. ‘I will sing with you.’
- ‘Very good,’ says the blonde lady. ‘You have done the right thing!’
She send a young assistant to warn Roger Lanzac. Leaving, the youth, smiling broadly, says:
- ‘It’ll be entertaining: the battle of the Piafs!’
Battle? In truth: thinking of what choice to make, I had completely forgotten about the upcoming competition and that I would have a very serious opponent, who had already won this contest four times in a row. I had seen this Georgette Lemaire on television. She was older than me, already married, with two sons, but the poor thing wasn’t happy in her marriage. I read in a newspaper that her husband beat her. She also sang songs from Edith Piaf’s repertoire, and that seems natural to me: are there songs more wonderful?! I am urged forward, I hurriedly adjust my hair and… forward! Now I’m on the film set! Each camera resembles a spider, cables stretch from it in all directions, as though they are webs to trap flies. ‘Hurry, hurry! Give me your music!’ I catch my foot on a wire, and the music falls to the floor…
- ‘In what key?’ Asks the pianist.
- ‘Oh dear! I don’t know myself!’
Overhearing my answer, Roger Lanzac immediately mimics me:
- ‘Oh dear! Well, you certainly can’t say she has Piaf’s pronunciation!’
Everyone around me laughs. I go crimson to the roots of my hair. Perhaps I should have chosen Guy Lux… Georgette Lemaire, like Edith Piaf, is Parisian, after all. But unfortunately it’s too late. The projectors light up. There is nowhere to run.
‘Mais pour toi, Jezebel,
Je ferais le tour de la terre…’
I hear how Roger Lanzac asks the technician: ‘How are you there, is it all right?’ And, from somewhere out of the darkness, the answer comes: ‘It’s ok’. Doubtless it means that I have passed the trial.
- ‘You sang magnificently,’ says the blonde lady. ‘Raymond Marcillac is very pleased.’
- ‘Really? Thank you, Madame.’
- ‘Just call me Nanou.’
Nanou Taddei has a charming smile. And I have a lump in my throat and can barely keep back tears. How I wish that Mama, and Matite, and Christiane were here…
- ‘I’m called Mimi.’
- ‘Yes, I'm sure I heard that somewhere!’
The humour in her sentence escapes my notice. I am gripped by fear. One thing, only one thing, can calm me: prayer. Luckily, returning to the Rue d’Aboukir I see that the gate of Notre-Dame-des-Victoires is still open. I hurriedly go to the statue of Saint Rita and light my candle from one of the ones already burning. And at once feel easier at heart.
- ‘Release me from anxiety. Help me win… for everyone that I love, so that I can help them as you help me…’
Magali catches me just as I am drinking my lime decoction.
- ‘Were you very nervous?’
- ‘No, it passed.’
- ‘In your place I would have died of fear!’
I don’t continue this conversation, to keep my equilibrium, and so I am not distracted by irrelevant things. I go to bed and sleep like the dead. Because if heaven has gifted me with a voice, it has also given me the ability to sleep deeply for a long time. And a good sleep for me is a condition of success!
On Sunday morning, before mass, the whole family wishes me good luck on the phone.
- ‘We’ll pray for you,’ says Mama.
–’You know, Mimi, don’t be too anxious,’ adds Papa. ‘If this time you don’t succeed… it’s no big deal. You’ll be able to start again.’
But I firmly decide to be victorious. Life hurries me. After the closure of the factory I don’t have a full-time job. And as I’m already nineteen, it’s time to escape poverty and release the entire Mathieu family from it! I must make it so that happiness reigns again in our house, where sadness had moved in after the death of Grandpapa. Three years of stubborn work with Mme Collière had planted seeds of hope in my heart. I remember that this time I put on my black dress as though it was a holy nun's habit, and before coming onstage made the sign of the cross as fervently as a toreador before a bullfight.
On the day of a show, if it is a live transmission, tension rises by several degrees. Back in those times live transmissions were standard. Later, doubtlessly thanks to the improvement of recording technology, direct programs were almost abolished, and the unique emotional response of the viewer. I am very happy now TV is again beginning to return to direct transmission, because then the artist performs almost without insurance. Perhaps I give the impression of a rational person, but in reality I enjoy risks, or at least the fight for success when it is far from guaranteed. I like winning. Most of all I like winning a ‘difficult’ audience, or one with the reputation of being difficult. I can’t handle bad luck… even in card games (therefore Matite is convinced that I am not a real player)!
On that day, 21st November 1966, I am possessed by only one thought: I must win. I still don’t even have an idea how hard the profession of a singer is. I can only see the goal, there, really close. And I am almost sure that I can achieve it. At this point the make-up artist takes my arm, sits me down, plucks a few hairs from my eyebrows and says:
- ‘We’ll have to remove the down from your arms…’
- ‘What, right now?’
- ‘No. If you’re going to perform in a dress with short sleeves…’
And now for the first time I’m on the big stage, standing alone in the light of the projectors, the television cameras are focused on me, and, extending my hands to the public, I experience an extraordinary, heretofore unknown to me sensation: as though I am touching people with the tips of my fingers and offering them my heart on my palms.
‘Mais pour toi, Jezebel,
Je ferais le tour de la terre
J’irais jusqu’au fond des enfers!’
Our program is transmitted in the break of a rugby match, on Sunday television. The hall explodes with applause, it rolls at me like a wave. Yes, this time I am sure: I have conquered the audience. But it’s not just about those in the concert hall. All – or almost all – of France is voting! I find sanctuary near Nanou Taddei; like me, she has tears in her eyes. Now all there is to do is wait… but how excited, how effervescent is everyone around us; musicians and technicians, walking past, exclaim: ‘Magnificent!’ The assistant comes up to us and reports: ‘They are calling from everywhere, the switchboard is jammed!’
- ‘That doesn’t surprise me,’ I say to Nanou. ‘Do you know how many friends and members of the Mathieu family alone there are?!’
I feel very light-hearted, I even what to laugh. Only one thing worries me: after my performance Roger Lanzac lifted me above the floor – which, by the way, it is not so hard to do – and kissed me! That must mean that his anger of yesterday had passed… but to where has Lanzac suddenly disappeared?
- ‘He and Raymond Marcillac are awaiting the final results.’
A large man climbs backstage from the hall and asks whether I already have an agent. I look at him blankly. An agent of what?
- ‘From now on many people will want to take charge of your affairs,’ Nanou whispers to me. ‘Be very careful!’
I remember that Mama ordered me not to start a conversation with anyone! But here, where everyone hugs and kisses each other, it is not so easy. The young assistant returns, choking with laughter:
- ‘There are some people who are calling to ask whether we transmitted a recording of Piaf’s voice!’
I don’t understand what he’s talking about, and Nanou explains to me what a recording is. I am flattered, but all the same I’m also disappointed: that means there are people who don’t believe it was me singing! A tall man pushes his way through the crowd towards me. I recognise at once this giant with bushy sideburns, blue eyes and the walk of a cowboy…
He bends down to me, takes my hands in his and asks:
- ‘Do you recognise me?’
Do I recognise him! Johnny Stark! If I dared, I would say to him that he is a devious scoundrel! I awaited his letter for so many months!
- ‘Didn’t you promise to write?!’
- ‘I was extremely busy… but just now I was sitting by my television… you have a wonderfully transmitted, photogenic image. I jumped up: it’s her, that little girl from Avignon! As usual on a Sunday, I was in a dressing gown to relax. I quickly changed, rushed to the concert hall, and voilà, here I am. And now let’s continue our previous conversation…’
I can barely keep from laughing. With him you feel as though you are watching a funny movie!
- ‘So does this mean, Mademoiselle Mathieu, that you still want to be a singer?’
- ‘I am already a singer.’
- ‘Come! Not quite yet… you merely sing. And that isn’t the same thing. To be a singer is very, very difficult. I don’t think that you have any idea how difficult. But if you have enough courage…’
- ‘Yes, I have enough.’
- ‘She is the eldest of thirteen children,’ Nanou enters the conversation.
- ‘Yes, I know, I just heard about it… but if I take her in hand, I will be the eldest! And I will be the commander! Do you have a cat o'nine tails at home?’
I reply, laughing:
- ‘No. We’ve never had one!’
- ‘Well, perhaps I’ll find one somewhere!’
I laugh even louder. He goes to find Roger Lanzac.
- ‘Oh, if Johnny Stark has decided to ‘take you in hand’… that is very good luck,’ says Nanou, ‘because he is a true professional. Through his hands have passed Yves Montand, Mariano, Tino Rossi, Line Renaud, Johnny Halliday…’
She, Line Renaud, a famous singer, invited by Raymond Marcillac himself, is also here – I see that Johnny is talking to her animatedly.
- ‘You seem to know M. Stark very well?’
- ‘Quite well,’ replies Nanou. ‘He’s my ex-husband.’
Right at this moment there is a hubbub a few metres away. The final results have been arrived on… my mouth goes dry. What is it? How did I go?
- ‘You’ll perform again next week,’ a young assistant throws at me, rushing by.
That’s it! I won! If I could I’d kiss the stage! Roger Lanzac goes to the centre of the scene and before the light of the projectors announces a very rare occurrence on the program ‘Game of Fortune’.
- ‘Georgette Lemaire and Mireille Mathieu have received the same amount of votes…’
So that means next Sunday both of us will perform again. It’s not yet a full victory. I am pleased and yet disenchanted… the ‘cowboy’ again comes up to me.
- ‘So, mademoiselle from Avignon, are you happy?’
- ‘Not quite. I’ll have to start everything over again…’
- ‘Exactly! In your profession you’ll constantly have to start things over again. And if you haven’t yet understood it, it’s better to quit now.’
I shake my head in denial. I want to be a singer.
- ‘In that case I’ll have to see your parents,’ says the ‘cowboy’. ‘We’ll go to Avignon together.’
- ‘But I already have a return ticket for tomorrow, for the morning train…’
I dig in my handbag and take out my second-class ticket. He smiles:
- ‘If you don’t mind, mademoiselle, we’ll leave a little bit later… and in the sleeping wagon, via the Blue express.’
The Blue express… yes, I had heard of it. Was it really blue? I begin to imagine that ‘the cowboy’ takes me away with him to the kingdom of dreams…
Then I didn’t know that my new life would last for many years… as I didn’t know that it wouldn’t always seem like a dream!
We didn’t leave the next day. Because my photograph appeared on the front page of the newspaper France-Soir: I stand before the microphone in my black dress with the muslin sleeves, and sing. It’s even possible to make out a small medallion from Notre-Dame-de-Lourdes which Papa gave to me, saying:
- ‘It’s gilded… and it will bring you good luck.’
And truly it had brought me luck.
- ‘Hello! Is that you, Mama?’
- ‘Yes! I’m calling from the drug store! We all saw you, you looked such a dear! But how are we to understand your telegram? You’re not leaving immediately?’
- ‘No, Mama, I’m coming tomorrow with Monsieur Stark. He wants to help me with my career! And therefore wants to see Papa.’
- ‘Oh dear! Poor Roger, how should I warn him! Right now he’s at the cemetery, scraping the gravestone of Agathe-Rosalie, it’s grown over with moss!
- ‘You’ll have enough time, Mama, we’re only coming tomorrow! But you must buy today’s France-Soir, I’m on the front page.’
- ‘The paper hasn’t been delivered to the city yet. Where should we look for you?’
- ‘I told you, on the front page. Right below the announcement about General de Gaulle!’
- ‘That’s impossible!’
I hear how in the drug store they pass each other the message: ‘Her picture was placed right under the announcement about General de Gaulle!’
I continue explaining:
- ‘You’ll see – right below the title there is a long article. That’s why General de Gaulle didn’t appear on television… the election campaign… today Mitterrand… etc. And a little bit lower you’ll read: ‘Mireille, a young songstress of ‘Télé-Dimanche’, and next to it my photograph!’
- ‘Was there a photo of General de Gaulle as well?’
- ‘No, there isn’t a photo of General de Gaulle…’
From the other end of the line I hear Mama’s voice, she’s explaining to those in the store: ‘Her photograph was printed, but they didn’t put in a photo of General de Gaulle’.
- ‘What do they write about you?’
- ‘Listen, I’m reading it out: ‘Seeming especially fragile in her black dress, nineteen-year-old Mireille Mathieu, who is only a metre fifty tall, surprised the viewers of ‘Télé-Dimanche’ yesterday by singing in an unexpectedly powerful voice the song ‘Jezebel’. She is leaving today by train to Avignon, where – in a cheap, run-down house – she is awaited by twelve brothers and sisters, a mother who is exhausted by life and a stonemason father…’
- ‘Did you tell them I was exhausted by life?’
- ‘I only told them you had thirteen children.’
- ‘I don't think that ‘a mother exhausted by life’ sounds very coherent! And that’s all?’
- ‘No. ‘They wait for her... to do the laundry, the dishes and other domestic tasks…’
Matite takes the receiver:
- ‘And what am I doing then?!’
- ‘You’re helping me! I couldn’t mention everyone! And I also told them: ‘I would like to again perform on ‘Télé-Dimanche’, become rich and help the poor…’
- ‘You said that? And they printed it in the newspaper?’
In Avignon there is silence, then I hear the voice of my sister:
- ‘Listen, Mimi… Mama has started crying. She can’t talk with you any more. I’m hanging up, this call will already cost a lot…’
In Magali’s little apartment there is also silence. I’m sniffing, I blow my nose, swallow tears, I must breathe, there isn’t enough air.
- ‘Well, you need to take a break,’ says Johnny Stark, who has brought me a heap of newspapers. ‘The office of France-Soir is two steps away. It will be very nice if you come to thank them. Because, hopefully, they are not printing the name of Mireille Mathieu for the last time!’
The office is at arms’ length away… but downstairs we are awaited by a chauffeured car. Stark asks him to stop at the first florist’s. I look at him with some surprise: does he want to give me flowers? The ‘cowboy’ explains that the flowers aren’t for me at all, but for those who work at the paper. I obviously don’t realise that they did me a big favour, placing my photograph on the front page. So it would be quite correct for me to give them a small present...
I have never in my life seen such an enormous car. It is possible to stretch out to your full height in it. You only need to press a button – and the glass in the windows comes down by itself. It has a radio and even a telephone.
- ‘Does it work?’
- ‘Of course it works!’
- ‘Could I call Mama?’
- ‘I don’t see much point in it, you’ve only just spoken to her.’
At the florist’s Stark offers for me to choose what suits my taste. I am lost. How am I supposed to know what flowers journalists like? The cabinets in that huge building are, perhaps, the same as in our town hall. And the workers at the town hall like it when they have some kind of potted plant… for example, a pretty heather like that which Papa plants in the cemetery…
- ‘Oh, no!’ Declares Stark. ‘A pretty young lady, who has successfully performed in front of ten million TV viewers, does not come out of a Mercedes with a flower pot in her arms, as though she is about to celebrate All Saints’! She appears with an armful of the most magnificent flowers! Madame, prepare for us a large bouquet, in light tones.’
- ‘Shall I bind them with a ribbon?’
- ‘No, a ribbon isn’t necessary. Let the bouquet be modest and attractive, like herself.’
- ‘I recognised her at once,’ says the florist. ‘It’s the little girl from Avignon! I will watch you sing next Sunday as well. And I’ll call, too, so that you are given the victory! Could you give me your autograph and photo?’
- ‘She’ll send you her photograph in a few days. The shots aren’t ready yet.’
When I enter the vestibule of the building of France-Soir with a bouquet in my arms and accompanied by a tall ‘cowboy’, I as happy as a newly-wed. Wasn’t I beginning a completely new life?
On the wall between two elevators there is a huge engraved board, like the beautiful grave plinths in our cemetery. I read the inscription carved on it: ‘For several centuries this place was called the Court of Miracles…’
- ‘Do you know what the Court of Miracles was?’ Asks M. Stark.
I feel as though I am again sitting the exam for the school certificate. In my head, faint memories stir.
- ‘Wasn’t it here that the poor assembled in the Middle Ages?’
And suddenly I start laughing. It’s not so much laughter as loud guffaws: I sometimes laughed like that in the past, and then no one could remain serious. In the ‘cowboy’s’ blue eyes I read amazement. The thing is that I suddenly remembered our Avignon-Chicago. Mama would often say: ‘This is the true Court of Miracles!’ And now the fact that I was climbing the marble steps of the building of France-Soir seemed to me the embodiment of a miracle.
- ‘The poor really did meet there, but mainly it was tramps,’ Stark corrected me. ‘Swindlers, pretending to be poor, blind, crippled. The police finally banished them from there, but it happened not in the Middle Ages, but during the reign of Louis XIV!’
In the section of spectacles and entertainment everyone knows Stark. He enters the room like a cowboy enters a bar. The setting is casual. A young blonde lady receives the bouquet from me and thanks me warmly. Soon I find out that she, Mme Fleury, plays a not unimportant role here, but since we are the same height, I feel at ease.
- ‘You are called Monique, like my sister, isn’t that right? But I always call her Matite…’
- ‘Just imagine! Your Southern accent is even more obvious when you speak than when you sing!’
Mme Fleury is the replacement of the organiser of the chief of the spectacles, Willy Guiboud. He appears in the doorway of his office, and, looking at me fixedly with black eyes, exclaims:
- ‘So here’s the little monster!’
Seeing that I am astonished, he adds:
- ‘Didn’t you know that Johnny pays attention only to monsters? Strictly to unusual ones, naturally.’
I am completely out of my league. For the first time in my life I have met with a Parisian wit, and moreover, one of the most caustic. Afterwards I find out that he can be the most loyal friend, but now he inspires in me only fear. Johnny and Willy exchange remarks, the meaning of which escapes me, but which in them provoke loud laughter. Suddenly the phone rings, and the secretary, who has a boy’s crew-cut and never for a moment takes a cigar out of her mouth, says:
- ‘You can go up. Pierre is waiting for you.’
As we’re going up the stairs, Johnny Stark explains to me:
- ‘We’ll now be received by the owner of France-Soir – Monsieur Pierre Lazareff. You know well the saying about him: Cinque colonnes à la Une.’
- ‘My God! I’ll have something to tell Mama! The secretary calls the newspaper’s owner by his given name! They’re so friendly, these Parisians…’
M. Stark moderates my enthusiasm:
- ‘ I like to give nicknames, and the secretary Jacqueline Coutellier I call ‘Couteau’ [knife]: when people who she thinks don’t deserve her attention call, she brusquely cuts off the conversation! So things aren't always as nice or friendly as you think’
The office of M. Lazareff is larger than all the rooms occupied by our family in Croix-des-Oiseaux put together; but he himself is small, and that reassures me. Basically, I feel calm either among short people, because they don’t inspire fear in me, or among extremely tall people, such as my ‘cowboy’, because with them I feel safe. Now I understand why the workers call their boss simply Pierre. You want to call him by name, because you at once get the feeling that you have known him for a long time. He lifts his glasses onto his forehead, perhaps to better see me close up. And asks M. Stark what news of Johnny (I understand that he is talking about Johnny Halliday); the former replies that everything is going well: Halliday performed in Olympia with great success.
- ‘I wish the same for this little one, if her parents agree to entrust her to me. Just now she mixes up the Middle Ages with the reign of Louis XIV… although I have to allow for the fact that at fourteen she was already working in a factory.’
- ‘That’s not so bad. I was only educated for a year longer than you,’ says M. Lazareff to me. ‘I left school at fifteen.’
So there! And he became the owner of the largest newspaper in France! I smile at him in as friendly a manner as I can.
- ‘You can catch up later… it’s all to do with memory. Do you have a good memory?'’ I nod my head, afraid to give an affirmative answer out loud, wary of a trick question. And it comes: the paper’s owner asks whether I remember what was on last week’s front page…
- ‘Please excuse me, m’sieur, but at that hour the children are already in bed, and as the eldest I have to set an example…’
- ‘They have thirteen children in the family,’ puts in Johnny Stark.
- ‘I know, I know, I do read my own paper,’ answers M. Lazareff in his quiet but sharp voice. ‘She is well brought up,’ he adds. And again addresses me:
- ‘If you decide to be a singer, you’ll have to change your daily schedule!’
- ‘I believe that she’ll be a famous singer yet,’ declares Johnny Stark, understanding that the interview was coming to an end.
- ‘Yes, if only she isn’t eaten by the jackals,’ M. Lazareff laughs, and then adds: ‘If you win, we’ll write your story in detail. It’s very educational, very humanistic!’
- ‘If it’s possible, she’d like to see how the newspaper is made, it interests her very much.’
That was true, I had asked that question while still in the car. And so we are on the fourth storey, in the room which is called such a strange name – ‘marble’… this word provokes in my memory the image of the graveyard, where my poor grandfather worked with Papa. They explain that this name comes from the stone tables on which lie very heavy typographical moulds. At my appearance the work stops and I hear voices from everywhere: ‘It’s little Mireille from Avignon’ and ‘it’s the new little Piaf’… here there is the same sharp smell that was present at the envelope-making factory… I am led to the printing mould, on it there is assembled the future page about entertainment… but it has to be read from right to left!
- ‘Would you like to see the latest proof?’ I am asked by the printer.
He takes a sheet of paper, smoothes it over the type… and gives me the printed text. I am the first reader who finds out that the theatre Gaîté-Lyrique, closed for the last three years, has a new director… the proof-reader reads the article, correcting - here a letter, there a comma - and the assembler, armed with pincers, removes the unnecessary comma, working as carefully as a make-up artist who is plucking an unneeded hair. I watch, mesmerised.
I am approached by another assembler, who holds in his palms a sheet of lead: ‘Your name is assembled here,’ he says, ‘from this it was transferred onto the front page of the paper.’
I read it from right to left, and the leaden type sparkles as though it is silver. If I had dared, I would have asked for this metal strip, to make a brooch out of it!
Yes, now I am absolutely certain: I will put all the strength of my soul into my new profession.
- ‘Next time,’ I tell the assembler, ‘you will assemble my name… using letters this big!’
And I open my arms wide. Everyone around me laughs, I loudest of all, but in reality I don’t feel like being merry. I am so wound up that I would have gladly walked home – since it’s only two hundred metres to Rue d’Aboukir. But Monsieur Stark makes me go in the car.
- ‘A famous singer doesn’t walk, and if she's a future celebrity, all the more: she risks getting lost in the crowd.’
I ask who Pierre Lazareff meant when he mentioned ‘jackals’. Stark tells me not to worry beforehand: as soon as he finds out about the approach of a jackal, he will warn me at once!
- ‘You think that we’re taking too long to get to Rue d’Aboukir? That’s because in places the streets are closed!’
It’s not easy for me to talk with the ‘cowboy’, because I never know when he’s serious and when he’s joking. And it’s still so…
In reality we arrive in Neuilly and stop before a very beautiful house. Stark put a key into the lock.
- ‘Here’s mademoiselle Mathieu!’ He announces loudly.
In the doorway appears an elegantly dressed blonde lady.
- ‘This is Nicole Stark, my wife.’
I am stunned: the whole room is covered in carpet. I have never seen anything like it in my life. This sky-blue carpet is as thick as the furs that, yesterday, were on Line Renaud. I barely dare to step on such luxury. Everywhere on the wall there are paintings. I can’t take my eyes from them. Oh! A really young dancer in a ballet group!
- ‘You like art?’ Asks Mme Stark.
- ‘That’s the spitting image of Fanchon, the daughter of Mme Julien, my school teacher.’
- ‘That’s not Mme Julien, that’s Degas.’
- ‘Degas? Who is she?’
In amazement I come closer.
- ‘Wonderful…’ growls the ‘cowboy’. ‘I can see I’ll have a lot of work to do!’
A little girl flies into the room like a whirlwind and jumps at him. Now I am even more amazed: never have I seen such straw-coloured hair, it is almost white. It turns out M. Stark has a wife and little daughter. Very good. It seems that he spoils her.
- ‘She is called Vincence,’ he says, and explains:
- ‘If she was a boy, she’d have been Vincent.’
- ‘The name ‘Vincent’ is common in our parts,’ I remark.
- ‘But I am also from your parts,’ he says. ‘From Cannes.’
I don’ want to argue with him, but Cannes isn’t Avignon!
He tells his wife that I am a very naive girl, since I followed him without fear.
- ‘I could have turned out to be worse than Bluebeard!’
I can’t keep from laughing:
- ‘Mama didn’t even let me begin a conversation with a stranger, but you, Monsieur Stark, are far from strange!’
I trusted him completely. I tell him that I thought he was American, and after the gala-concert of Enrico Macias call him ‘cowboy’ in my thoughts. Now it is his turn to laugh.
- ‘Stark is my family name,’ he says. ‘Until I was eleven I lived in Corsica, then in the South of France –at first in Cagnes, but then I moved to Cannes. But my great-grandfather in his time went to Texas and bred horses there.’
- ‘Then I’m not mistaken, he at least was a cowboy!’
I rejoice… M. Stark is full of contradictions, but with each minute I find him more likeable.
- ‘Madame, food is served,’ says a maid, coming in.
And now we sit in the large dining room, on the table-cloth there are silver utensils, just like those that were in the home of my ill-fated friend Roseline… but why are there so many knives next to each plate? Three of them. One looks like a little shovel; however, the maid removes it at once, although it is perfectly clean. M. Stark watches me.
- ‘That was a fish knife. And to eat both fish and meat with the same knife isn’t acceptable.’
- ‘At home there’s no fear of that: we serve either fish or meat, but more often just potatoes!’
- ‘Is it really true that you have twelve brothers and sisters?’ Asks Vincence. ‘You are very lucky!’
- ‘It’s impossible to have everything,’ says her father. ‘If you had a dozen brothers and sisters you’d have much fewer dolls, and your toys would have to be shared by everyone!’
Afterwards we look into Vincence’s room… it is all pink, and the girl lives in it alone, surrounded by many soft toy animals. She is quite tall for her eight years and looks so nice in her puffy-sleeved dress (it is all covered in bows and lace) and delicate shoes… I tell her that she is very pretty, she replies that I am pretty too, and asks:
- ‘Why are you all in black?’
I could have told her that it was my only dress, but another, more correct answer comes into my head:
- ‘That’s because my grandfather died a month ago…’
The answer is so truthful that, uttering these words, I remember the suffering on Grandpapa’s face, and…
Mme Stark is unhappy: I have been driven to tears.
- ‘Please excuse me…’
When I was still really little, Mama taught me to excuse myself in time: ‘When you don’t know what to answer, when you have done something stupid, when you have done what you should not have, when you have behaved badly… at once ask to be excused, and you will be forgiven. Those who are polite are always pardoned, those who aren’t – never.’
M. Stark lifts his eyebrows:
- ‘Let her cry, it brings relief. These last two day she has gone through so much. If anything, she is good at worrying. You know, my dear Mimi, by her ability to worry is how a true artist is recognised!’
Thus he gave me my first lesson. And immediately came the second: to calm one’s nerves there is no better medicine than sleep. And he drives me home, because tomorrow, in Avignon, I have to appear before my parents looking my very best…
I had seen the Blue express go by… but I had never been inside! The sleeping wagon is a real wonder, here everything is covered in velvet, and therefore the compartment for four people resembles a drawing-room. With us comes a very nice, tall man, hung with bags.
- ‘That’s a famous photographer,’ Stark says to me.
- ‘Will he be photographing you?’
- ‘Me – not likely, I’m not good-looking enough for that!’
What a strange person he is, M. Stark! He jokes all the time. The photographer keeps on clicking, aiming the camera at me, and I don’t know how to hold myself.
- ‘Don’t pay him any attention, pretend he isn’t here at all.’
But it’s not so much the photographer as the fact that I am bothered by a thought which I eventually express:
- ‘What if I lose next week?’
M. Stark reassures me: why should I fail and suffer a loss if I had already overtaken my opponent? Now I don’t understand anything. Don’t the words ‘received the same number of votes’ mean that we had finished the competition as equals?
- ‘All in all, that’s true,’ he replies. ‘But all the same, you have overtaken her by fifteen points.’
Is he joking again? Or is he saying it to encourage me? Stark explains that the contest organisers were doubtlessly seeking to arouse more interest for the show. They didn’t want the competition to finish, and this way the expectation of the outcome had raised tensions. It’s not every day that a singer, having come first for five weeks in a row and winning the warm sympathy of the viewers, lets herself be overtaken at the finish line by a girl who has come out of nowhere.
- ‘Next Sunday eighteen million people will be sitting in front of their TVs, wanting to know who will win: the girl from Avignon or Georgette Lemaire. Anything can happen: what if you collapse under the pressure?’
Oh, no! I won’t let myself collapse! It is my destiny, our destiny, that is being decided. I must conquer poverty… and with me – all of the Mathieus! I need a victory. And I am certain that I will have one!
The cowboy and the stonemason
When we arrive home, M. Stark’s eyes go round in amazement. There’s nothing to say: our small apartment is much too cramped for such a large family. All the children are grouped around Papa. He has put on his blue Sunday suit, and as usual he has a hat on his head. On one side of the table are all the Mathieus, on the other – completely alone - the ‘cowboy’, and I have found a space at the side.
- ‘It resembled a scene from a film,’ Matite told me later.
The picture was, in any case, unforgettable…
Papa begins the conversation:
- ‘It’s very kind of you, Monsieur Stark, to take an interest in our little Mireille. You must believe that she is worth it. You don’t meet someone like Mimi very often. She has the rarest voice! And she inherited it from me…’
- ‘That’s true, my husband has the voice of an opera singer,’ says Mama, putting a carafe of aniseed vodka on the table!
M. Stark listens quietly. The children know Papa’s opinion well (they hear it almost every evening, when Papa sits by the television; sometimes, for example, he expresses it like this: ‘In comparison with that singer Mimi is a perfect Callas!’), and so they begin to chase each other, emitting the Indians’ battle cry.
- ‘Matite! Christiane! Look after the children! Mimi has more important things to do!’
M. Stark joins in the conversation:
- ‘Yes, the voice of your daughter, Monsieur Mathieu, can be compared to a diamond, but it isn’t polished, it needs to be cut and shaped. Yes, she has all the talents necessary to achieve success, but you know yourself that natural talent is not nearly everything. For a successful career it is such a small thing (here he shows the nail on his little finger). The most important thing is work. And its role is this big (and he points at his extended arm). It isn’t an easy thing to be a singer.’
- ‘I know it, Monsieur Stark. But my daughter is a good worker. She will make every effort necessary.’
- ‘An effort’s an effort, but even this isn’t all, Monsieur Mathieu. She needs to have perfect control over her voice, her body, her movements, and all this she has yet to learn.’
The boys surround M. Stark:
- ‘Hurrah, a cowboy! Hurrah, a cowboy!’
I redden with embarrassment:
- ‘Don’t take offence with them, Monsieur Stark. Here at home we love films about cowboys!’
- ‘On the contrary, I am flattered!’
- ‘Here’s a cowboy! Here’s a cowboy!’ Shout Régis and Guy.
- ‘So these are your twins?!’ Says M. Stark with a smile.
Mama first gave birth to five girls, and then five boys in a row.
- ‘And now we’re alternating: another girl, then another boy!’ Says Papa, as usual filled with pride as soon as the conversation turns to his progeny.
- ‘Yes, you’ve got it well organised,’ jokes M. Stark and adds, turning to Mama: ‘But you must have a lot of work, Madame. Accept my compliments – it is so clean here that one could eat off the floor!’
- ‘How did you like my aniseed vodka, Monsieur Stark? I keep it for special occasions, but it is very easy to make; if you liked it, I could give you the recipe. You just take a litre of forty-degree vodka…’
- ‘Marcelle!’ Papa interrupts her. ‘We need to discuss important things!’
- ‘… fifty well-ground aniseeds, half a kilo of sugar, some cinnamon, vanilla, nutmeg skin… and let it ferment for five-six weeks. But perhaps you don’t know what nutmeg skin is?’
- ‘Me, not know what it is?!’ Exclaims M. Stark with a Southern accent. ‘Madame, I am a chef from Cannes!’
He has obviously scored a point in his favour.
- ‘You can cook!’ Mama is delighted.
- ‘Yes, Madame, if the Lord sees fit to prolong all our lives, then one fine day I’ll invite you to try my bouillabaisse and my omelette with truffles! And our Mireille, can she cook?’
I hang my head:
- ‘Mainly I wash the dishes and help around the house…’
- ‘We have very simple food,’ adds Papa.
And here the twins, as though on purpose, start to sing:
Les patates, ça épate,
Les lentilles sont gentilles…
- ‘Okay, stop your rhyming!’ Rumbles Papa. ‘Or you’ll be taken for idiots!’
M. Stark changes the topic of the conversation.
- ‘Do you have time right now, Monsieur Mathieu? Then perhaps we’ll all have lunch together in the restaurant L’Ermitage?’
L’Ermitage for us is the same as the Blue express: we often go past it, but it never came into our heads that we would one day go in. That restaurant is considered one of the best in the city.
- ‘I think I’ll stay home with the little ones…’
- ‘No, Madame. I said ‘all together’. How many of us are there?’
Lunch at L’Ermitage will be remembered by the Mathieu family for a long time.
- ‘Not even on the day of our wedding, Roger, did we eat so well!’ Mama enthuses.
For the first time in her life she eats in a large restaurant. Impressed by the unfamiliar setting, the babies are quiet. And I have butterflies in my stomach: my fate is being decided! Monsieur Stark says that no one should under any circumstances think that Mireille is close to her goal: she has successfully performed in Avignon, but when a debutante sings before the inhabitants of her home city, she is almost guaranteed success. She achieved a victory in the first round of Télé-Dimanche, but even this means little. She has many trials ahead of her…
- ‘If she has firmly decided to be a singer,’ he declares, ‘then each time she comes onstage she has to fight for a victory. In my opinion, she is a brave girl, and she’ll have to remain one to the end. If I agree to become the manager of her performing career, I won’t allow the smallest weakness on her part!’
I am not afraid either of the battles to come, nor of M. Stark, whom Rémi over dessert was already calling uncle Jo. I was dreading something else – the necessity to leave home… I had thought (this was, of course, naive) that I would still live here… perhaps in another, better-built quarter, if I earned enough money. But together with my relatives. I thought I would sing here and there, perform on TV, from time to time I would have to spend a day or so in Paris to make a recording. I hadn’t realised… however, M. Stark was categorical.
- ‘She will have to live in Paris, but not with her friend on Rue d’Aboukir. It is necessary for her to have her own apartment and nothing to worry about: she needs to think only of her vocation. She’ll need instructors, different kinds of instructors… she needs to learn a lot! If you agree, then uncle Jo will take charge of her career. While we’re looking for a suitable apartment, I’ll keep her at my house, she’ll live there with my wife and daughter. And we’ll begin polishing that diamond. But it’s not at all easy to do that, it’s a very difficult job. I’m sorry if I’m repeating myself. But it’s necessary for you all to understand what’s coming beforehand.’
- ‘You know, Monsieur Stark, I left home because I was going to war. She is also awaited by a war, but not such a sad one! And she’s our ‘brave soldier’!’
Once, Doctor Monoret had called me that. It seems that that's how it is.
- ‘I don’t doubt it, Monsieur Mathieu. But if she wants to become a general, she shouldn’t be afraid of wounds!’
I laugh with everyone else, not yet understanding what kinds of wounds he means.
- ‘If you agree, I’ll order a contract to be drawn up, but you’ll need to sign it, Monsieur Mathieu, since Mireille is still underage. For maximum security, show the contract to one of your close friends…’
- ‘Yes, I’ll show it to M. Colombe. It was he, as the head of the Avignon Festivals Committee, who supported Mireille and sent her to Paris. Do you know him?’
- ‘Monsieur Raoul Colombe? Yes, I know him. We even had a small misunderstanding.’
My parents and I look at each other with alarm.
- ‘Oh, it’s nothing serious. It happened two years ago. Johnny Halliday, whose affairs I was representing then, neglected to come to one of the gala-concerts in Avignon, and Monsieur Colombe sued us. He lost the case, without much pleasure, of course.’
I am astonished: M. Colombe sued M. Stark! Just imagine! In France there are thousands of committees which organise different concerts, and thousands of managers! And it should happen with two people I know!
- ‘It’s not that it was about a whim of Halliday’s – by the way, I don’t let caprices pass. He really did fall off a horse when he was shooting the film ‘Where are you from, Johnny?’. Why are you suddenly gloomy, my dear Mireille? In our profession there are often small conflicts, but they are always solved. We are all a bit like one big family!’
He has found the right words to calm me. And continues his tale about Johnny Halliday, who is ‘simply made for the stage’.
- ‘He inspired liking not only in me, but in every single spectator, and it happened five years ago in Alhambra. He’s irresistible… but one can’t take one’s attention away from him from morning to night, or more correctly from evening to morning, and the whole trouble was that he can sleep until midday, while I have to be in my office by morning!’
Monsieur Stark tells everything in such an engaging manner! Now he’s talking about Mama’s idol, Tino Rossi.
- ‘You want to know how I met Tino? It happened on a yacht which was standing on anchor in the harbour at Cannes. It belongs to one of my friends, a well-known lawyer. Besides me there were two guests on the yacht – Tino Rossi and his partner Mireille Balin, whom he then preferred to others…’
- ‘Ah yes! ‘Naples. Fiery kisses…’’
- ‘What? Have you seen it, Madame Mathieu?’
- ‘No. Only the posters.’
- ‘Mireille Balin was a beautiful creature. We all stood on the deck, preparing to drink a glass of wine. She was very pretty. She had no need to take care of her appearance. But you know women: she takes out her compact powder, and – flop! – it slides from her hands and into the water. And that compact was studded with diamonds.’
- ‘Real ones?’
- ‘Real ones.’
- ‘My God!’
- ‘Just so, Monsieur Mathieu. And then a certain Stark, who was then very young, not bad-looking and who liked to show off, without wasting a second, throws off his trousers, and, wearing only swimming trunks, hop! plunges into the water! I was very lucky. The compact could have sunk deep into the silt. But it awaited me very kindly at a depth of five metres. I appeared on the surface again, holding the compact up in triumph. And then Tino, in his most melodious voice, says: ‘Well, we must admit you know how to swim!’ Since then we’ve always liked each other. Soon after, the war started. When peace was restored and I returned unhurt, I came to Tino and he entrusted me with organising his tours.’
Papa can’t pretend to be indifferent when war is mentioned. He questions Stark, who delights him, relating how he went to war as a volunteer and was sent to South Africa:
- ‘I was seventeen years old, I went with my regiment behind the American army, and there I saw front-line theatre performances. It was then that I acquired my passion for my present profession… by the way, my father was a gardener. He moved to the town of Cagnes and all his life grew new kinds of flowers in his glasshouses. He managed to grow a variety of sweet pea with a strong aroma, which had never been seen before!’
- ‘I would also gladly work with flowers!’ I cry.
- ‘When did you seriously begin your career, Monsieur Stark?’
- ‘Fifteenth of August 1946 in Cannes, at the age of twenty-two. I prepared ‘The Night of Famous Singers’, and the bill did not lie. In the concert participated Edith Piaf, Yves Montand and Marcel Cerdan, who in those times didn’t part from Piaf. My friend Roland Toutain opened the programme – it took place at the stadium of the Hespérides – by seemingly descending from the skies: he was hanging by a leg from a helicopter! It was very effective, but it cost a pile of money, so I had to pay a million of the old franks. It was my entire savings! The lesson was harsh, but it taught me the rule of the profession. You lose some, you win some. I think that if you accept my proposal about Mireille, we’ll win!’
And then he orders the champagne Cristal Rosé – his favourite, he explains.
- ‘Tell me, Monsieur Mathieu, could I ask you an indelicate question? Your hat suits you, in it you resemble the famous American choreographer Gene Kelly. But why do you never take it off?’
- ‘I don’t suffer from any complexes,’ said Papa, ‘so I will gladly reveal the secret to you: I lost my hair early on; but I still feel twenty years old! My wife ages, but I don’t!’
Everyone laughs. Mama puts her index finger to her lips…
- ‘So that our wives never become widows!’ Announces uncle Jo, lifting his wine glass.
We had never even seen pink champagne before. Some froth spills onto the tablecloth.
- ‘Everyone touch it, it brings good luck!’
The little ones smudge the froth on the end of their noses, even Béatrice receives her share: her little earlobe, resembling a tiny pink shell, is dampened with it.
- ‘And what about Mimi, sorry, mademoiselle Mathieu?’ Asks uncle Jo…
At night I lie in my usual spot – on the wide girls’ bed, next to Matite and Christiane. Mama comes to talk a little before sleep. We are all slightly shellshocked.
- ‘Where is the ‘cowboy’ sleeping?’ Asks Réjane.
- ‘He’s no cowboy,’ says Mama sternly, ‘you have already forgotten the pink champagne! He’s a true gentleman! And like all gentlemen passing through Avignon, he’s spending the night in the Hôtel de l’Europe!’
A true gentleman… in twenty years of working together, I often heard Johnny Stark called that. Called that because of his personal glamour, his splendid way of receiving guests, his ability to make the maitre d’ serve him particularly respectfully, for giving generous tips to some and expensive presents to others; but he was a strict gentleman, unusually demanding, believing in punctuality being the hallmark of a king, and therefore not accepting even a minute’s delay; he was distinguished by a phenomenal memory, which allowed him never to forget the slightest insult nor the slightest favour; thanks to that he was a convivial guest, possessed an inexhaustible supply of interesting stories and, like no other, was known for his sense of humour. He always remembered who liked whom and what, and could imitate any manner of speech, perhaps because he had travelled the world over. He could play masterful tricks on people on the phone. Even the most experienced celebrities were taken in by his imagined personas (a certain impresario from Argentina promises mountains of gold, or an Arabian sheikh, possessing an entire harem, declares himself a passionate fan…), at least while the conversation lasted. But one shouldn’t always take his jokes for real. When he, to use his own expression, ‘acts stupid’, it is often to hide his anxiety, unease, his problems, which he doesn’t confide even to those closest to him. It took a lot of time for me to understand him, and I myself am a very secretive kind of person; when I met Stark I had no experience in judging people, but I at once entrusted myself to him. I, so naturally shy, wasn’t frightened either of his enormous height, nor of the red birth mark on his left cheek, nor of his voice, which he raises threateningly when he really is beside himself or is only pretending to be angry.
- ‘Johnny…? He’s the best person in the world!’ Says to me Nanou Taddei.
I meet her again during Télé-Dimanche: I still have five weeks in which I must battle with the other contestants. She tries to support everyone, leads us to the pianist who in rehearsals accompanies us all. But I imagine that she feels a touching sympathy for the ‘little girl from Avignon’. She invites me to have lunch with her. Entering the apartment, I first of all smell not the aroma of tasty dishes, but that of perfumes… the scent is everywhere. And they way to my heart, it could be said, lies through my sense of smell! My delight amuses Nanou, and she offers for me to choose one of the bottles of eau de toilette which stand in her bathroom. My first ever perfume! This gift cements our friendship.
That is why at the table I dare to ask why she is no longer Madame Stark, since she speaks so warmly of him. She explains to me: that’s life, and the only person who can understand Stark’s personality is one who knows that at the age of thirteen he lost his mother, a still-young woman (she was only thirty-three years old). He worshipped the tall, beautiful woman, who was kind and intuitive. After her death the boy, formerly tame as a lamb, became angry, like a young wolf; he became the leader of the street urchins, unusually clever and resourceful; the scamp did everything he wanted to, he grew long hair when hippies didn’t even exist! He was often kicked out of school because he harrassed the girls!
- ‘I think he always searched for in a woman that tenderness that was characteristic of his mother… to fall in love with Johnny Stark is a real catastrophe! And to become his wife is even worse. But to you he’ll be an excellent Pygmalion.’
I don’t understand what that means. Returning to Magali’s apartment, I immediately grab the dictionary, but find the needed word only with difficulty, as I think that it is spelled ‘Pegmalion’! One thing becomes obvious to me: M. Stark doesn’t like short brunettes. After the tall and blonde Nanou, after the blonde and tall Nicole I meet a tall, redheaded young woman. She says to me:
- ‘I’m Nadine Joubert, Monsieur Stark’s secretary.’
She is wearing a pretty panther-print coat and in her hands she holds a stunning bag: later I find out that it is bought ‘chez Hermès’. Nadine excludes a delicate aroma. The impression is that she is holding a bouquet of flowers…
- ‘Monsieur Stark asked that, as soon as you finish rehearsing, I take you to 122 Avenue Wagram, he will be waiting for you there in his business office.’
Twenty-two is my favourite number! A good omen. I’m on the right path. This puts me into a happy mood. In the car I ask Nadine whether she had worked long for Stark.
- ‘Of course!’ She exclaims. ‘Already fourteen years! I was younger than you when I first came to work for him.’
She tells me that she was training to work in the movies. Not as an actress, but as a director’s assistant. And so, having finished school, she signed up for a secretarial course to learn shorthand. Then she began work in an artistic agency, which only took up half the day. She hoped in this way to get closer to the world of movies…
- ‘Would you like to dedicate the second half of your day to me?’ Once asked a tall man, her boss’s friend, who would often come into the agency to ‘find something out’ about the artists.
Of course, it was he!
- ‘I knew nothing about music-hall, but with M. Stark… as they say, there’s no time to get bored, life around him is in full swing! You will become convinced of that yourself if you work with us. He organised the first tours of Gilbert Bécaud, and also the performances of Line Renaud; she was the one who convinced him to try his luck in Paris, after Loulou Gasté, who had come from the South, told him how at each corner there he saw bills that announced the concerts of Yves Montand. They were in their hundreds. But Gasté didn’t even suspect that in those times, M. Stark put them up himself, borrowing for that purpose a cargo scooter on three wheels!
I imagine how uncle Jo drives around on a scooter, sticking up posters, and burst out laughing so loudly that the people in the next car turn to look at us; Nadine quickly presses the button to lift up the window-glass.
- ‘In short, I had so many things to do that Monsieur Stark asked me to work for him all day, so that I forgot to even think about cinematography!’ She concluded.
- ‘I can imagine how nice it is to be his secretary…’
- ‘Not at all! It’s simply dreadful! You are never free: not in the evening, not on Sundays, nor on holidays. Today we are in Paris, tomorrow – in London, then in New York or in Tokyo. Telephone, telegraph, aeroplane… and not a moment’s rest… but I won’t leave, not even if you shower me with gold!’
It seems that I’m not the only one whom Stark enchanted from the very first meeting!
Contrary to what I imagined, the office of M. Stark in the house at one hundred and twenty-two Avenue Wagram doesn’t at all resemble the work offices of our town hall. It is more in the style of a dining-room in a penthouse apartment. Snow-white curtains, carpet, paintings on the walls. How nice it would be just to sit here, doing nothing… but uncle Jo has other plans. From this evening on I will live in Neuilly – Nicole has already prepared everything in the guestroom, Vincence is absolutely delighted; and tomorrow they will sort out my toilettes. But the most important thing are the songs.
- ‘To win the contest ‘Game of Fortune’, you need to have chosen the right songs. And not just one or two, but several… It may be that you’ll have to perform for many weeks in a row. Come, name us your favourite songs!’
- ‘’l’Hymne à l’amour’… (his face twists into a grimace). Yes, I know, Mme Collière thinks that I am still too young…’
- ‘Mme Collière is absolutely right. You are a chicklet who wants to crow like a rooster!’
I bite my lips. M. Stark recalls himself, pats my cheek and adds gently:
- ‘Don’t frown. You look much nicer when you smile. I promise: you’ll crow yet, loudly, so that the whole of France hears you! Let’s write it down: ‘l’Hymne à l’amour’… and what else?’
- ‘What else? ‘Je sais comment’… and… I don’t know.’
- ‘You need to know! So can you sing anything else or not?’
- ‘Monsieur Stark…’ Nadine comes to my rescue, ‘you’ll frighten her to death.’
- ‘Nadine, this is my office and I do what I want… well, do you know the song ‘Exodus’?’
- ‘Yes, but not very well.’
- ‘You will have to learn it. You see, parallel with participating in ‘Game of Fortune’ I want to offer you a trial run. Or, if you prefer, a small tour. You’ll raise the cloth.’
I look at him, frightened. What cloth? I imagine that I am again washing dishes.
- ‘In theatre jargon, a cloth is the front curtain. You’ll perform first, as soon as they lift the curtain. And as for stars, there’ll be France Gall and Hugues Aufray, both very nice people, you’ll see for yourself. So, if everything goes well, on the fifth of December you’ll participate in ‘Game of Fortune’, and you’ll be watched by eighteen million TV viewers. The sixth of December you’ll perform in Dijon, the seventh – in Geneva, the eighth in Saint-Etienne, the ninth in Lyon, and on the twelfth you’ll appear on ‘Game of Fortune again’… if God wills it.’
He says it jokingly, but I reply quite seriously:
- ‘God is always with me.’
My tone when I say these words baffles him for a moment.
- ‘All right…’ he says after a pause. ‘From now on you’re to think of nothing but your songs. You’re not in love with anyone?’
- ‘I think one person believes that he is in love with me, but I am not in love with anyone myself.’
- ‘All the better. When someone is in love, they don’t eat, sleep or work. If you want to achieve success, you need to eat, sleep and work. These are three secrets on how to keep your voice and succeed. There are no others… Nadine! Show her out!’
- ‘I hope you didn’t frighten her out of her wits?’
I burst into laughter. Stark looks at me in amazement:
- ‘You laugh like a grenadier… (I gape at him). 'Never mind, she obviously doesn’t know what it means! You are a gnome, but you laugh like a giant. And since it is probable that you won’t grow any more, you’ll need to tame your laughter… good day.’
On the threshold I turn around:
- ‘But I think Papa hasn’t yet received the contract?’
- ‘Yes! Yes! Print it, Nadine.’
‘Yes, yes!’ He says it so often, this Monsieur Stark – sometimes open like a cowboy, sometimes secretive like an Indian, sometimes haughty, like a courtier, or generous like a Christian. Thus is the person who is to change my whole life completely.
I don’t yet know that I will also completely change his.
My first tour
I have the feeling that I am caught and carried off to somewhere by the mistral. I have barely enough time to say goodbye to Magali:
- ‘I’ll return soon, and we’ll drink a cup of coffee together!’
…I don’t yet know that I won’t return very soon at all…
- ‘You only have this one large suitcase?’
- ‘Yes, Nadine.’
- ‘I’ll ask the chauffeur to carry it down.’
- ‘No need to bother him, look: I can lift this suitcase with one finger!’
In the car bursts of laughter are constantly heard. The window-glass has to be lifted again, so as not to attract the attention of passers-by.
‘My’ room at Neuilly. The first personal room I’ve had in my life, done up all in blue colours. A plush teddybear which I sometimes press so that it squeals, to amuse Vincence. A bath, full of foam… just like the one that Marilyn Monroe took: I had seen a picture of it in an illustrated magazine.
- ‘Hello, Mama..! There’s foam everywhere! You sink down in it, and your fatigue disappears at once. I’ll bring you some bottles from Paris!’
Everywhere I am met with friendly smiles – at home on avenue Wagram and on TV… my performance on ‘Game of Fortune’ is about to begin, and Nanou and Nadine are agitated.
- ‘Apparently Georgette Lemaire is withdrawing from the game. She’s talking about it now with Roger Lanzac.’
My make-up is applied. I tell myself: ‘Oh no! What kind of victory will it be if she refuses?’ M. Colombe, having arrived from Avignon, is sitting in a corner with uncle Jo. Talks are taking place there, too! Dear God! Make it so that they come to an agreement. A rumour circulates, causing much chaos: Georgette Lemaire is withdrawing in favour of Mireille Mathieu. What’s the reason?
- ‘She’s already signed a contract with a gramophone-record company,’ says someone.
I don’t feel anxiety. Only firm resolve.
- ‘Think of only one thing, Mimi, of the audience. Concentrate,’ whispers uncle Jo to me.
He remains backstage with M. Colombe. Clutching my golden medallion convulsively, I cross myself, and step into the rays of the projectors. My voice departs for the skies… thunderous applause. The switchboard is jammed. Yells of ‘bravo!’. Voices in the crowd: ‘A new Piaf!’ I am protected by the strong frame of uncle Jo. I hand out autographs. Everywhere, even on the street, there is the clicking of cameras. They are so wonderful, these people! I am ready to kiss them all!
- ‘The worst is over!’ I say in the car.
- ‘Don’t ever think that. In your profession the hardest is always before you.’
- ‘What about Monsieur Colombe?’
- ‘Fine! We agreed.’
I was sure of that. And not at all because I caught several phrases from their conversation. According with the wish of my parents, M. Colombe was to become one of the participants in the contract.
- ‘I don’t see any reason,’ explains Stark, ’for Monsieur Colombe and the Avignon Festivals Committee to sign a contract with you, who has not yet become a professional singer. "I can’t ask permission of the city of Avignon for this or that action!" I said. "Each to his own business. Because, in betting on Mlle Mathieu, it is I, Stark, who is risking much. I have before me expenses which will not be soon repaid: her installation in Paris, her wardrobe, tutors and first of all Mireille’s repertoire, which needs sorting out – she only knows two or three songs. What are you doing towards that? And I am pestering the best songwriters, they are already composing for her. Because we need a record, and as soon as possible. For the discs to be bought, Mireille needs to be known to the public. Concert engagements are essential. Can you suggest anything? I can. I have acquired permission for her to sing in Olympia. And the contract will be drawn up according to all the rules known by the lawyers."’
- ‘I’m going to sing in Olympia?!’
- ‘In a month.’
- ‘Mamma mia!’
- ‘You’re right to be anxious. You’ll have to work very hard…’
Rue Caumartin. The artists’ entrance. Just imagine: only three years ago Piaf entered through this same door, … accompanied by Théo Sarapo… on the third floor I experience a shock: "She’s here! In her black dress, tormented by despair…"
- ‘That’s a portrait by Kiffer, it was reproduced on her bills,’ says to me Bruno Coquatrix.
The portrait hangs behind Brunos’ writing desk, right above his chair, thus occupying the most exalted place…
- ‘Did you love her very much, Monsieur Coquatrix?’
- ‘Oh, my dear girl, ‘love’ is an understatement! Johnny knows that very well. If there was no Edith, there would be no Olympia.’
He offers a cigar to Stark:
- ‘You can take it: mine are the same as yours!’
- ‘Those are the ones that I gave you…’
- ‘No, these are the ones that I am giving you!’
They both smile, I laugh – my loud ‘ah!ah!ah!’ which makes M Coquatrix raise his eyebrow in surprise. Johnny tells him that he’ll have to get used to it: - ‘She either laughs loudly or cries bitterly. You only need to begin talking with her about Piaf, and she’ll burst into tears at once.’
- ‘Yet I’ll talk about her with you, my dear girl, because it’s true, what I just told you. If Piaf hadn’t come to my aid, I probably wouldn’t be sitting here chatting with you while they prepare your contract for participation in the program of Sacha Distel and Dionne Warwick!’
Releasing a cloud of smoke, he pauses, perhaps awaiting my reaction to the magic words ‘your contract’, but that is Johnny’s affair. I myself am more interested in what he’s telling about Edith Piaf. In his soft, velvety voice, looking at me confidentially, he recalls how four years ago he was already preparing to ‘close shop’.
However strange, the triumph of Joséphine Baker in some ways complicated Olympia’s situation further. He had counted upon Bécaud to bring back the public’s attention to vocal programmes, but Bécaud was forced to break off his performances suddenly. In a critical position, Bruno tried to replace him with other singers, but…
- ‘Such a one as Gilbert Bécaud cannot be replaced, and because in our profession it is like constantly walking on a tightrope – I think Johnny will agree with me – after two concerts, marked by a complete flop, I had decided to close Olympia: I had no funds nor strength of will left. I despaired. And then Piaf, who herself had experienced much hardship not long ago, began to call me every day. You cannot imagine, my dear girl, how uplifting a friend’s compassion can be when catastrophe is near… Edith didn’t stop at that: knowing that she was the only one who could guarantee Olympia a full house and thus bring the theatre back on its feet, she performed here three months in a row. Yes, she saved me from bankruptcy… that is why her portrait hangs, and will always hang, in my office… and now let’s talk about you. My dear girl, when I saw you on Télé-Dimanche, I immediately called Johnny… but it turned out he was already sitting in front of the TV. So I want to say that I believe in you. However…’
I had felt that he would pronounce that word! However, he does not believe in a new Piaf. And he asks himself whether it is too soon to let me go onstage, when I sing only the songs that Piaf sang. Johnny remarks that we had already discussed it, that I really do not yet have a repertoire of my own, but it is all the same interesting to see how I will be received by the public.
- ‘She needs to perform on your stage, to pass this particular test.’
- ‘Having memorised only three of Piaf’s songs?’
- ‘Yes, she still does not sing anything else. I don’t have to explain to you that good songs do not lie about in the street. I will lift the world on its feet, but for that we’ll have to wait two-three months, or perhaps even four… whereas I want your public to get to know her better now. It will be good for her.’
Smoke floats above the cigar, and Bruno’s voice sounds kind:
- ‘Of course, of course… but it’s risky. Naturally, if you’re in the game, I’m with you. Well, what do you say, my dear girl?’
- ‘I’m happy when I sing! And… I really like playing. But I don’t enjoy losing.’
And I burst out laughing.
- ‘It’s a good thing that you sing much better than you laugh,’ says uncle Jo to me when we are descending the stairs.
Stark decides that during my trial tour in the provinces I will perform in my modest black dress. And for Olympia they will put together a different wardrobe.
- ‘By the way, I want to buy you a different suitcase.’
- ‘No, no! Let me keep the one I have.’
- ‘It’s too large. And not strong enough.’
- ‘It’s my lucky charm, and I’ll never part with it.’
- ‘I swear, you are as superstitious as Piaf!’
- ‘You shouldn’t talk! I saw it myself: the other day, having upset the salt shaker, you at once took a pinch and threw it over your shoulder!’
He agreed with my arguments about the suitcase, and therefore I gladly accepted from him a make-up set as a present. It had been my dream. I had visited many shops with Nicole, but I liked perfumeries most of all. I never tired of admiring the beautiful boxes and elegant bottles. (To tell the truth, I pay more attention to their shape rather than their contents. I have remained like this all my life…) Oh, this running about after purchases… it intoxicates you…
What a beautiful jumper in the display window! We come into the shop. I am shown hundreds of pullovers. I have always had a weakness for lilac.
- ‘But that’s simply awful!’ Exclaims Nicole. ‘It’s only fit to be worn by old ladies!’
Nicole knows what she is talking about. She had after all been a model. She is no less elegant than the beauties on the pages of illustrated magazines. But all her dresses go higher than the knees, and such fashion isn’t in my taste. Nicole hands me a blue jumper, then a red…
- ‘Could I also take a yellow one? Because I have five younger sisters, and when I get tired of wearing blue, red and yellow, I’ll give these sweaters to Matite, Christiane and Marie-France. But how much do they cost?’
Nicole answers that that is not my concern. Johnny will pay. I must remember once and for all: I don’t need to think about money, I must only think about my appearance, about becoming as attractive as possible…
- ‘Hello, Mama! Remember, how I was in a hurry to the concert hall? I was late and very anxious about it, and I lost my hat made from fake fur, the one I bought at the market for ten franks!’
- ‘Of course I remember, my poor dear! Your ears were never cold in it!’
- ‘Well, now I have another. Made from mink!’
A cry of surprise reaches my ears. The news flies around the drugstore…
The next day is a meeting with Nicole’s hairdresser Elrhodes. Nadine explains to him that I need a slightly more luxurious hairstyle… then we meet Nicole, who awaits us at her tailor’s - Louis Féraud’s. She is relentless: he will sew me a dress that goes above the knees!
- ‘She is very stubborn,’ says Nicole. ‘She doesn’t want to show her legs at all.’
- ‘That’s too bad, because they are very attractive.’
I redden to the roots of my hair. For the first time I am undressing in the presence of a man…
Happily, he is from Arles! Or ‘almost a countryman’. He tells me about his city, and I forget that I am standing before him in a bra.
- ‘Will we sew an evening dress too?’
- ‘For now we won’t. We have to hurry. She’s leaving on a tour. We’ll come to you again later!’
- ‘Hello, Mama! You know, they slightly fluffed up my head. My hair, I’m talking about my hair… and they also ordered a black dress for me, sewn all over with pink ribbon. But tell Papa that onstage I’ll perform in the same dress that he gave me! Uncle Jo decided it. I think Papa will be happy with that… no, Mama, I can’t come at all. If you only knew how much work I have! Each day I rehearse in Olympia.’
- ‘Onstage already?’
- ‘No, not onstage. In the studio on the fifth level. With Monsieur Byrs, the pianist of Aznavour himself.’
- ‘Byrs? Is he from the South, by any chance? I once knew a Byrs, he came to the town hall for breadcards…’
- ‘No, Mama, I don’t think so. He’s very nice… I completely forgot to tell you that I couldn’t even move at the hairdressers’: they worked with my fingernails and toenails at the same time! Can you imagine how stupid I looked?! Yes, reassure Papa: they used clear nailpolish, not red!’
- ‘Perhaps you can drop in at home after ’Télé-Dimanche’?’
- ‘No, Mama! The next morning I’m leaving for Dijon…’
The tour… I dreamed of it all the time. After all it would be my first real journey… I felt somewhat heavy at heart when uncle Jo said that he wouldn’t come with us: he has many things to do in Paris, the songs for mademoiselle Mathieu are coming in, he needs to listen to them, and therefore will join us somewhere on the way. I will leave in the car with Georges Carrière, his employee, who is answerable for the tour. Georges is a tall, thin man with a long nose and a friendly smile. The meeting place is Dijon. And all of us tour participants will live in the same hotel.
Hugues Aufray, the most famous member of our tour, arrives with his musicians. Last year he had gone on a tour with Sylvie Vartan. He enchants me at once: Hugues resembles a tall, very slender cowboy, so thin that if he hides behind a birch tree he won’t be seen… during rehearsal he impressed me very much. No matter what he takes in his hands – a guitar, harmonica or pipe – any melody performed by him, whether happy or sad, gives a feeling of wide, open spaces. I look at his eagle profile and listen to his velvety, slightly muffled voice, which especially moves me when Hugues sings: ’Y avait Fanny’ or ‘N’y pense plus, tout est bien’. The second of these songs I would have sung with pleasure myself.
- ‘It’s by Bob Dylan,’ Aufray tells me.
I don’t know that name, and Hugues explains that Bob is a famous singer who lives in the United States and composes his own songs. Hugues doesn’t laugh at me because I don’t know all this. During this long trip he had the idea of putting together his own vocal and instrumental ensemble – the singer is accompanied only by string instruments, as it is done in cowboy movies when they dance… I really like his ensemble; what the musicians play doesn’t at all resemble pop music. I would gladly listen to them each evening, standing backstage, but Monsieur Carrière is completely against it. I must go to bed in time, such is the command of M. Stark. I make a face: I would rather listen to Hugues Aufray! No, no, I must sleep a lot, to restore my strength after exhausting travel, or else… in a word, I must look after my voice! I will leave the concerts each night with France Gall.
When I was told that she is an ‘American star’, I of course admitted that I thought she was French. There is laughter. It turns out that ‘American star’ is the music-hall term for a famous singer who performs at the end of the first section of the concert, just before the interval (usually those who perform in the second section are those whose names crown the bills). All right, now I know it… France Gall is very nice. On the tour she is accompanied by her father; understanding that I feel lonely, she at once suggests:
- ‘If you want to, we can share my dressing room.’
With what pleasure I drag to her room my black dress and make-up set from my little cupboard, on the door of which is chalked ‘Mireille Matthieu’… they have put an extra ‘t’ in my name, but I am not offended, since they don’t know me at all… I don’t even feature in the bill, uncle Jo explained it to me: everything happened so quickly… they had no time to print new ones… and then again, it’s even to my advantage – it will be easier to understand how I am being received.
The light of the projectors flares on, and unexpectedly it is announced to the public that now will perform the young winner of ’Télé-Dimanche’. I come out onto the stage and… what is happening! I haven’t even had time to open my mouth, and the hall thunders with applause, like on Sunday, when I won the contest!
- ‘Hello, Mama! Just imagine, here I was greeted in the same way they sent me off after performing in the competition!’
- ‘I don’t understand what you’re talking about! How did you go in Dijon? You performed there before a completely unfamiliar audience, not like the one in Paris!’
From his side, M. Carrière calls uncle Jo:
- ‘The little one has shaken the caravan. She has won no less fame than Hugues.’
‘Caravan’ is yet another word which will expand my store of theatrical jargon.
And another expression I heard from France:
- ‘You know, you’re no present for me!’
But she said it kindly. I felt it acutely when I was observing her from the wings. It’s not so easy to sing ‘Annie aime les sucettes’ after ‘l’Hymne à l’amour’… to tell the truth, I caused her much trouble. After the concert her father escorts us both to the hotel, like two sisters. In their presence I feel at home, and often think about my relatives. In this family everyone is connected by music. I soon find out, with great delight, that Papa Gall himself graduated from the Conservatory and wrote heaps of songs for Edith Piaf and Charles Aznavour; each time I listen to one of them, ‘La Mamma’, I begin to cry. I don’t dare ask whether he’ll agree to write something for me too (since I need new songs), because I understand that he must first of all think of his own daughter. Not long ago he composed a song for her, ‘Sacré Charlemagne’; we love to sing it as a chorus, as it makes us laugh. I ask France:
- ‘Did you know Piaf?’
- ‘Of course! I often came to her dressing room in Olympia with Papa.’
How I envy her! It will never become a shared memory for us, alas. But France and I already have something in common: like my father, her mother sang in church, and both of us have twin brothers. Then again, the resemblance ends here, because France’s brothers are musicians and perform with her. And I begin to daydream: if only Régis and Guy would learn to play the guitar, they could also go on tour with me. Well, time will show, they are still only thirteen years old! France also tells me about her organist grandfather, who is one of the creators of the ensemble Petits Chanteurs. I simply adore that ensemble! I have a record of their Christmas songs. Then she tells me that not long ago she received a large prize from Eurovision. It was a nightmare! At rehearsal the orchestra musicians whistled at her: it seems they didn’t like her song ‘Poupée de cire, poupée de son’; and when France was judged the winner, her furious English rival went to tear her hair out!
- ‘Yes, we chose an unsettled profession!’
- ‘But we love-it, love-it!’
- ‘Shh! They’re already sleeping next door!’ Stops us Papa Gall.
I would gladly sit up with them all night, but it’s necessary to go to bed. We go to our separate rooms.
And here I am engulfed by anxiety.
For the first time in my life I am left alone, really alone.
In uncle Jo’s house the doors to mine and Vincence’s rooms remained open. Here, in the hotel, I lock myself in. Everything seems odd, as though I am in a foreign country. I am afraid. I understand that it is stupid, but I am afraid. I can’t sleep in this large and chilly bed. Since childhood I had become used to feeling the warmth of my sisters sleeping next to me at night. And our laughter… oh, how I miss home. I remember how I settled the blanket on my little brothers, how tenderly I rocked baby Béatrice…
The next night in Saint-Etienne was even worse. The sounds in my rooms seemed to me even more frightening, the night-time illusions even more threatening, the loneliness even more oppressing. How surprised would be the audience, who yelled ‘bravo!’ to me at the evening concerts, if they saw how I sob at night into my pillow and don’t dare turn off the light.
On the way from Saint-Etienne to Lyon M. Carrière, who had secretly been observing me, became worried about my health. I told him that I don’t sleep well in the unfamiliar setting. He advised me to take a nap in the hotel after lunch.
- ‘Oh, no! I really want to be there at the rehearsal…’
I don’t feel well anywhere but the theatre. Here it is as though I acquire a family. I quietly hum along with Hugues and his ensemble. I carefully watch France as she moves on stage. Soon the curtain will go up, I am performing first, so there is no point in leaving the dressing room to go to the hotel. I watch how France applies her make-up. By the way she comments that I over-use the rouge. And that my eyebrow pencils need to be sharpened to a very fine point. I am happy.
But when the curtain descends for the last time and we need to return to the hotel, I become so gloomy that Papa Gall notices it.
- ‘I can’t stand the night,’ I explain.
- ‘Well, in that respect you’re not at all like Piaf!’
When uncle Jo at last appears, in Geneva, I don’t hide my joy. He attends the rehearsal and… doesn’t say anything. That must mean that everything is going well. In the evening I don’t see him in the wings, it seems he is watching us from the hall. Our last performance on tour finishes, and Stark treats the participants to a modest dinner. Everyone is enjoying themselves, I feel wonderful. The artists, vying with each other, tell entertaining stories.
One of them is about Aznavour; it belongs to those times when he performed with Pierre Roche. Charles, embarrassed by his small height, wore shoes with thick soles. The partners went to visit a manager who could give them an engagement; absorbed by the conversation, Aznavour crosses his legs; noticing his fat sole, the manager bends to Roche and whispers: ‘Does he have a club foot?!’ Charles, not noticing anything, keeps on talking and mechanically now crosses his other foot. And then the manager exclaims: ‘But he has two club feet!’
Another story is about Bourvil: once he came to his accompanist Etienne Lorin and saw how he, out of breath, was dragging bags of coal to his apartment. ‘Wait, old man, I’ll give you a hand!’ With these words Bourvil hauls a bag onto his back, takes it upstairs, comes back down, jumping some steps, and grabs another bag. The concierge runs out of his booth, tears the bag out of his hands at yells at Lorin: ‘How can your conscience allow you to let Monsieur Bourvil haul coal for you!’
Each time he retold this occurrence, Bourvil added: ‘That was how I noticed that I had become famous’.
Then follows a story about Marten… then Barclay… I am unused to staying up so late. I can’t keep my eyes open, and uncle Jo sends me to bed. Tomorrow we need to make some purchases before flying to Paris… I say goodbye to the other tour members, but not for long, I think. In March Hugues in going to perform in Olympia, I promise to come to his concert. France promises to watch Distel’s programme, in which I will perform. In reality we won’t have the chance to meet for long. Our paths will only rarely cross each other.
In the morning I rush along the streets of Geneva as though chased by the wind. And the wind here, it must be said, is rather strong. Uncle Jo looks at the scarf that I have wrapped round my neck with obvious curiosity.
- ‘It’s for my voice,’ I explain.
- ‘It’s the best way to catch cold. Take it off at once.’
- ‘But I’m so afraid of losing my voice. It’s the only thing I possess!’
- ‘It’s more likely that you’ll lose your sight, tip of your nose or your hair…’
They are so rich here in Switzerland! They have built a huge fountain in the middle of the lake just so it looks good. And what beautiful shops there are everywhere, in them there is everything you need to celebrate Christmas. Christmas... this will be the first Christmas I won't spend at home. I must buy everyone a present, I can’t forget anyone…
- ‘And what will you buy for yourself?’
- ‘A pair of shoes.’
- ‘You wouldn’t prefer a modest necklace?’
- ‘I have my golden cross.’
- ‘A small bracelet?’
- ‘I don’t like jewellery. Shoes are better.’
And we depart to find the ideal shoes, which are not so easy to find when your feet are size thirty-three. All those we are shown are too large. Johnny remarks that the women of Switzerland have large feet and we are only vainly wearing down our soles! Perhaps it’s worth going into the children’s sections? I argue that little girls wear shoes without heels, and I must have shoes with heels, even if not very high ones… but they must have heels! And we continue to visit the shops, until we finally and totally unexpectedly find charming shoes… made from red leather! They fit me well, the heel is the right one, and their colour will match the ribbon that is on the dress being sewn for me by Monsieur Féraud. What luck!
But when we return to Neuilly, Nicole exclaims:
- ‘How awful! What is this? Red shoes! Everyone will look at them, and they won’t even glance at your face!’
And the next day they order me made-to-measure shoes. Black ones.
Uncle Jo has prepared a surprise for me. He orders the curtains in the room to be pulled together. He hangs up the screen. How wonderful! We’re going to see a film!
- ‘Not just any film,’ says Johnny. ‘A film about you. I made it in Geneva.’
Ah! Now it’s clear why he wasn’t in the wings but in the hall. The film begins… no, that’s impossible… is that really me?! Stark has cut out all the shots in which they applaud me and yell ‘bravo!’, and left only the ones in which I sing my three songs.
He turns on the light again. My cheeks are blazing.
- ‘How do you find yourself?’
- ‘I’m simply terrible!’
I dimly hope that he’ll protest. In vain.
- ‘And you… how did you find me?’
He answers dryly:
- ‘A real scarecrow!’
The blood flows from my face. Now I am as white as a sheet. My heart turns to ice. Barely audibly, I ask:
- ‘What do we do now?’
- ‘To begin with we’ll watch the film again.’
The images flash by again. From time to time Johnny stops the film:
- ‘Look… look how you came onstage! And how you walk! And what are you doing with that arm? Look at your mouth, why are you pulling such faces?’
It’s real torture to watch again and again how I perform my three songs… the light comes on again. I dare to whisper:
- ‘But all the same… they applauded me…’
- ‘You just saw everything yourself. Beware of applause more than of whistling. They applauded you because you charmed them with your sweet little face and strong voice. And also the tragic story of your life. As you know, everyone likes fairytales.’
- ‘What do I do now?’
- ‘Work… but I must say I also have to praise you. You know how to hold a victory. And that is the most important quality of a true boxer. You’ll soon realise yourself that show business isn’t far from boxing.’
The lesson is harsh. But as Johnny said, I do ‘know how to hold a victory’!
- ‘How much time is there left before my performance in Olympia?’
- ‘Eleven days.’
- ‘In such a short time I won’t be able to learn everything I need to know.’
- ‘Of course not. Don’t even try. Think about what you need to get rid of. First of all, don’t make faces. Don’t wave your arm. Don’t move like a clockwork doll… I’ll tell you a trick: think about all this before bed. The work will be done during the night, while you sleep. And during the day you’ll just have to whip yourself on.’
My first Olympia
No more running around the stores, the perfumeries, the shoe shops. Now it’s only Neuilly – Olympia, Olympia – Neuilly, Neuilly – Olympia.
In the studio on the fifth floor of the house on Rue Caumartin, the pianist Henri Byrs always arrives half-frozen. He doesn’t like the winter. And says:
- ‘Brrr… one of my legs is frozen, the other numb!’
I guffaw. It’s good to laugh, it clears the throat. From time to time Bruno Coquatrix looks in:
- ‘Everything well, my girl?’
- ‘Yes, my uncle!’
Later Johnny arrives and listens attentively.
- ‘That’s a bit under, no?’
- ‘Yes, she has a tendency for that.’
- ‘Pay attention, Mireille, you’re a little out of tune.’
- ‘Okay, Johnny. I’ll obediently follow Byrs.’
Participation in Télé-Dimanche has become routine for me. I come. I win. Once they photograph me with Eddie Barclay and Charles Aznavour; I stand between them. Both of them like me well, I can feel it. Charles wrote two songs for me. Eddie intends to release my first record. Naturally, when I learn all the songs needed for it. In the coming two months uncle Jo has to listen through four hundred and fifty songs…
- ‘Well?’ Barclay asks him.
- ‘It’s an avalanche of tired old melodies. Not at all what’s needed. Everyone still writes as they did for Piaf.’
- ‘She won’t be forgotten very soon.’
- ‘So far that’s favourable to Mireille. I signed the contract for her to participate in The Eddie Sullivan Show.’
- ‘Yes. By the third of March we’ll be in New York.’
That is how I find out that I am to discover America.
Eddie can’t get over the news. The Eddie Sullivan Show is the most famous TV show in the United States. All the most well-known artists persistently seek to appear on it.
- ‘Well, I achieved it with unbelievable ease. The agreement came with the return mail. Fifteen days ago I roused all my friends, Leslie Grade in London, my correspondents in New York and Los Angeles: "A rare combination – a voice like Piaf’s, and very pretty…"’
I listen. It seems uncle Jo, who keeps on plucking my most painful strings, still thinks there is much hope for me. Our eyes meet. And, as though guessing my thoughts, he says: ‘I did warn you that your path won’t be an easy one!’
And in the meantime he has prepared a wonderful surprise for me: I can come to Avignon for a day to give out presents for Christmas, since I won’t be able to celebrate it there. To save time I fly by plane. Finally my enormous suitcase has found a use! At my appearance, the quarter Croix-des-Oiseaux, it could be said, falls into chaos. In our house are gathered not only the fourteen members of the Mathieu family, but Aunt Irène and Great-Aunt Juliette, the cousins of cousins and the neighbours of neighbours… In my hands there are bars of Swiss chocolate, dolls, velvet bonnets bought in Geneva… I am looked upon as though I am a good fairy, everyone looks happy, and I am happy with them.
Mama prepared thirteen celebratory desserts (if you eat it, you will be happy all year round), and Papa has set up the Christmas crèche. It has been expanded with new statuettes.
- ‘Look, Mimi! I added more sheep to the flock. And the shepherds now have not one camel, but three – it’s much more plausible.’
Papa has obviously been touched by my arrival:
- ‘You know, your Papa sobbed, sitting in front of the TV! Now everyone says hello to him on the street. And they say to each other: "That’s the father of Mireille Mathieu!"’
Before saying goodbye the room goes quiet. It seems that even Béatrice understands the importance of what is happening. Lying in Mama’s arms she stares with her little eyes at Roger Mathieu, who without taking off his hat says to his eldest daughter:
- ‘Mireille… you’re a wonderful girl. May you always remain like that. Be simple and serious, to serve as an example to others.’
- ‘I will, Papa.’
I don’t say anything else, because I’m incapable of pronouncing another word. I kiss everyone – the big and the small. Around me everyone cries I don’t know why. Perhaps because any parting tears at the heart, even if it promises happiness. I sit in the car next to uncle Jo. Hearing the noise of the engine, the children leap out onto the street. They run after us in a cloud of dust, yelling:
- ‘Mimi! Mimi!’
Will the public love me as much as they do?
My dressing room is situated high up – on the fourth level, the most lively in Olympia; it is right next to the dancers’ dressing room. They are all very good-looking, especially their teacher George Reich. He is American, with very light blonde hair and transparent eyes. He is so handsome that I can’t stop looking at him.
- ‘Don’t dream too much, he’s not interested in girls!’
I don’t understand what the dancer wants to say…
On the same storey as the stage there is a star’s double dressing room, or rather, that of an ‘American star’, and the artists’ bar. It is the last place where it is possible to exchange a word. There are no chairs, only round tall stools before the counter, which stretches the length of the wall, hung with various old concert bills. The stage workers and performers, sometimes accompanied by friends who have come to visit them, come here to spend the time between rehearsals or before coming onstage, drink cool or sometimes even warming drinks. Behind the counter is the barmaid – a blond, chubby, amusingly painted and very cheerful woman, whose name is… Mimi.
She brings drinks to the dressing rooms, encouraging those who get cold feet, lifts the spirits of the performer who comes offstage slapping his stomach (‘A complete flop!’), pours champagne into wine glasses on festive occasions and, like a true nurse, administers fortifying drinks. She always has alcohol handy.
- ‘I’d like a glass of orange juice, Madame.’
- ‘My dear Mimi, just call me Mimi!’
Very quickly she becomes for me ‘one of ours’. Of course, ‘uncle’ Coquatrix almost always comes here; imperturbable (not once did I see him hurry and not once did I hear him raise his voice), he always speaks evenly, and always has a smile on his lips.
- ‘He still smiles even when he loses,’ remarks Mimi.
- ‘Where does he lose?’
- ‘Say, at the races, or when a concert goes badly.’
- ‘But the hall is always full.’
- ‘It may be full, but the public isn’t always happy! Our spectators aren’t very calm. And if they begin to hush..!’
‘Hush’ is yet another verb which enriches my dictionary of jargon. It was this word that Coquatrix used when for the first time the conversation turned to me.
- ‘I’m afraid they’ll hush her… out of protest. Believe me, Johnny. They loved Piaf so much. They still grieve over her death. And they could be outraged that another singer uses her repertoire.’
- ‘But the majority of TV viewers voted for her.’
- ‘I know. But TV is one thing. And Olympia is quite another. I would say that Piaf’s estate was here. Well, enough of that! Life will tell…’
Naturally, I don’t take part in this argument. But often I see how they whisper to each other about something, smoking cigars. As yet I am happy. The theatre is one big family. Here everyone addresses each other with the personal ‘tu’, they laugh, sing, play practical jokes on each other, share grief as well as happiness, walk around in bathrobes; if you need it, they will help you dress before coming onstage. The wife of my ‘uncle’, Paulette Coquatrix, keeps order. Her main concern are the costumes. Why do I call her cousin? Probably because she is too youthful to be called ‘aunt’. Their daughter Patricia – everyone calls her Pat – was married half a year ago.
- ‘Oh, if only you had seen it!’ Mimi tells me. ‘What chaos there was! They used a free day between the respective performances of Soviet and Israeli artists. The moment the curtain descended after the final performance of Moscow’s music-hall and the last spectator left the hall, they at once removed the seats from the orchestra pit and covered it with a large platform. They hung up a huge chandelier, decorated with many ribbons. Baskets of flowers, which arrived from everywhere, were placed along the red velvet curtain. They set up stalls with various snacks, and draped red cloth over the entrance, through which three thousand guests had come that evening. All that was left to do was open the ball! And the next day – hop! – everything was put back in its place and Olympia again became Olympia, on whose scene opened the tour of the Israeli music-hall. The wedding of his daughter is the most magnificent performance Bruno has put on!’
Patricia, the newly-wed, is a press manager. She is only a little older than me, she has beautiful green eyes and the hair of an Italian Madonna.
- ‘The announcement about your trip to New York has just appeared,’ she says. ‘And the reporters want an interview.’
- ‘No, no, only after the premiere,’ Johnny objects.
I am happy with his decision. If when I am surrounded by performers I feel like a fish in water, then when I am surrounded by journalists and showered with questions, I begin to imagine that I am again sitting the exam for the school certificate. And I begin to stumble over every word. Finally, they allow Thérèse Fournier to speak with me. I find her very nice. It was she who placed the first notice about me in France-Soir. I think I really surprise this tall pretty woman.
- ‘You read Lisette! But it’s a magazine for girls!’
- ‘I’m used to it.’
- ‘You have already travelled by plane. What impression did you have of it?’
- ‘Impression..? You fly and are unable to see anything.’
- ‘So, you are going to New York?’
- ‘Will you drink whisky there?’
- ‘I have already drunk it in Geneva, it was part of a cocktail. And I also ate lobster. For the first time in my life.'
- ‘And how was it?’
- ‘I didn’t feel well afterwards.’
(Later she will write: ‘Nothing surprises her, nothing delights her.’)
- ‘Do you remember well the day when you saw Piaf?’
- ‘I don’t know… I think it was Christmas. I was at home, sitting in the dining room with Christiane, and Piaf was performing the song ‘Milord’; something… something completely unimaginable was happening with me… I don’t know how to express it… if I was told: ‘Go and adore her’, I would have gone at once.
(She will write: ‘It’s hard to imagine this encounter between Edith Piaf, with her passionate femininity, and this young girl who has yet to experience life.’)
A few hours before the premiere, Nadine, who is tidying up my dressing room and guarding it like a loyal keeper, suddenly discovers that I have no coat and won’t have anything to wear to the dinner held by Bruno Coquatrix! Everything had happened so quickly! A light black coat, which can be worn above the dress sewn by Féraud, is absolutely necessary. And already she is rushing to Rue Caumartin to find me a suitable coat, the winter wind ruffling her thick russet hair…
God alone knows what is happening in the theatre. To surprise her husband, who has stayed in America, Dionne is absolutely set on speaking to him and is beside herself because the connection can’t be established. Doudou, the head electrician, is enraged because one of the projectors won’t work. One of the dancers has dislocated her ankle. Should they send for the doctor? Paulette tells me that I have lined my eyes too much, that I look like one of the Brutos (this comic act has come to us from Italy and was so successful in Claude François’ program that Bruno again included it in the schedule of Petula Clark, and then in ours. They paint their entire faces with soot, even the teeth, so as to appear toothless, and Aldo smiles as widely as he can on purpose, to make me laugh).
Patricia quickly kisses me and runs to the entrance to meet the reporters. Am I nervous? Yes, and no. I must win. Nadine returns with a light coat, she has bought it in the shop next door.
- ‘The mistress of the shop offered to raise the hem by morning. I told her that’s impossible, I need it now! When she found out that the coat was meant for the ‘little Piaf’, she dropped everything at once, even leaving by the counter a shopper who was deciding whether to take some tartan material for a dress. And so I’m here!’
Unfortunately, the coat still turned out to be too long. Simone, our wardrobe assistant, said she’d be able to shorten it by the end of the concert. And in the meantime they bring flowers into my dressing room, flowers, flowers and more flowers.
- ‘Which boor thought of sending those?’ Simone says indignantly. ‘Those’ are luxurious pink carnations. She calls Jean, a dancer, who is going past, along the corridor outside our door:
- ‘Take this away!’
Jean takes the flowers as though he is afraid to burn his hands.
- ‘Give them to whomever you like!’
- ‘Oh, no!’
- ‘Then throw them away!’ Turning to me, Simone explains: ‘Carnations bring bad luck. If Monsieur Coquatrix saw them..!’
I don’t try to find out why these flowers bring bad luck, although during walks Grandmama used to instruct me on how to escape misfortune…
Until then I had thought that telegrams only bring news of catastrophes. It turns out they can also bring great happiness. I read the signatures: Line Renaud, Charles Aznavour, Hugues Aufray, France Gall and… I read and don’t believe my eyes: ‘To Mimi of Avignon, Momo of Ménilmontant says welcome and wishes her success in the world of show business. Maurice Chevalier.’
- ‘Is he in the hall?’
- ‘No. Now he only comes here in the mornings. But there are Ray Ventura, Salvador, Bécaud, Aznavour…’
This is fantastic! How can I be afraid of anything now? But uncle Jo, on the contrary, is very tense, although he tries not to show it. He paces back and forth, giving me last-minute advice. A drawn-out ring announces that there are fifteen minutes left before the start of the performance. We go down the stairs. The young artists we meet on our way exclaim: ‘Break a leg!’ Before entering the hall, where Nicole and Vincence are already sitting, uncle Jo hugs me tightly. I hadn’t heard that phrase so often in my whole life: ‘Break a leg!’ Mimi, standing at the threshold of her bar, says it for the second last time. And the last time it is said by uncle Bruno, who adds, pointing at a worker who is carrying part of the scenery: ‘Touch wood!’ The sweaty dancers return from the stage after their performance. Here comes the voice of Sophie Agacinsky, the presenter of the concert: ‘Mireille Mathieu!’ I cross myself… the curtain comes up.
And so I am alone. Alone, although behind me, in the wings, stand about fifty people, and before me are two thousand spectators. I haven’t had time to open my mouth and they are already applauding me, perhaps because I seem so small on this enormous stage, because I look helpless and vulnerable. But it’s not like that at all. I enjoy fighting alone.
I especially like the moment when the orchestra plays the prelude, and the hall settles into such a thick silence that you could almost cut it with a knife.
- ‘Ecoute-moi, mon ami…’
What a wonderful phrase, I address it to the audience, assembled at my first performance in ‘Olympia’.
Aimes-tu la liberté?
Voudrais-tu t’enfuir d’ici?
Voudrais-tu t’en évader…
I can’t make out the faces of the spectators, but I feel that they are listening intently…
Je sais comment scier tous ces barreaux.
Je sais comment avoir le coeur libre et heureux…
Intonation. ‘Watch out for your intonation,’ uncle Jo said to me. And I watch out for it. The song soars high, then my voice dies away. Shouts of ‘bravo!’. I feel as though I have been reborn.
Yes, this is my life.
And nothing will stop me now except death.
The second song we chose because Christmas is approaching, and because I especially like it. It brings back images that are close to my heart, the faces of my little sisters when we all lived in a house with a pointed roof and at night trembled with the cold. The orchestra plays the prelude to the song ‘Sonnez hautbois, résonnez musettes!’, which we sang at school…
Je cours après le paradis
Car c’est Noël à ce qu’on dit.
Le Noël de la rue
C’est le froid de l’hiver
Dans les yeux grands ouverts
Des petits de la rue…
Le Noël de la rue
C’est la neige et le vent
Et le vent de la rue
Fait pleurer les enfants.
Ils sont blottis comme des Jésus
Que Sainte Marie aurait perdus…
This song unsettles my memory. Oh, obviously we didn’t run barefoot through the snow, but:
La lumière et la joie
Sont derrière les vitrines…
(Joy and light were hidden behind the shop windows…’)
With that we were familiar!
Mon petit, amuse-toi bien
En regardant, en regardant
Mais surtout ne touche à rien
En regardant de loin.
The thunder of applause, more calls of ‘bravo!’. That must be uncle Jo… but it seems he’s not the only one yelling. I have no time to sort it out, the orchestra is playing the beginning of ‘l’Hymne à l’amour’…
This time there’s no doubt about it, ‘bravo!’ is shouted by many! And Aznavour is among them, I can pick out his voice from a thousand. Backstage I fall into Bruno’s embrace, but he pushes me onto the stage again immediately, I go out to take a bow – once, twice, three times…
I feel so confused, clumsy, awkward. The trial is over, but did I succeed?
- ‘We’ll find that out after the interval,’ Bruno tells me, but I don’t understand why he have to wait so long.
- ‘Monsieur Stark is still in the hall, he wants to gauge the audience’s mood better, and is observing how the questionnaire goes.’
What questionnaire? Everything turns out to be simple: about two dozen employees of Olympia are among the audience, hading out sheets with three questions:
‘Did you like Mireille Mathieu?’
‘Does her ‘resemblance’ to Piaf bother you?’
‘Have you ever been to one of Piaf’s gala-concerts?’
The answer sheets are being examined during Sacha Distel’s performance. So that is what Bruno and Johnny were whispering about: they wanted to analyse everything thoroughly…
Nadine takes me away to the dressing room to remove my make-up and brush my hair for dinner. I hear the noise of the end of the concert, the invasion of the backstage, footsteps on the stairs, a knock on the door. Aznavour, Petula Clark and Dalida took the trouble to ascend to the fourth storey to congratulate the debutante. And when you think about what goes on backstage in Olympia after a premiere, you realise how wonderfully generous and loyal of them this gesture is. I will never forget it. That night I acquired three life-long friends.
Coming downstairs, we found ourselves in an atmosphere of general rejoicing. Bruno and Johnny glowed. The results of the questionnaire had exceeded every expectation.
- ‘Hello, Mama..! Can you hear me? The audience had to answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’.’
- ‘Like in the referendum held by General de Gaulle!’
- ‘To the first question – ‘did you like Mireille Mathieu’ – ninety-five percent answered affirmatively.’
- ‘Oh dear! That’s more votes than the General received!’
- ‘To the second question – ‘did her resemblance to Piaf bother you?’ – ninety percent answered in the negative. And to the third question half the audience answered that they hadn’t once seen Piaf on stage.’
- ‘That’s self-evident. And to find it out they didn’t need any referendums! Is it cold in Paris? Don’t forget to wrap a scarf around your neck!’
Now it’s clear: the audience like me as I am, the little Piaf reminds them of the great Piaf, who they had loved so dearly.
To my amazement, uncle Jo is of a different opinion.
The next morning I ask:
- ‘Where did Piaf’s discs go?’
- ‘You’ll receive them later.’
- ‘Did you hide them?’
- ‘Yes, I did. I don’t want you to listen to Piaf any more.’
My eyebrows go up.
- ‘Just so, Mireille. I want to be the manager of a singer, not a phonograph.’
My blood boils:
- ‘Do they give flowers to phonographs? Do they send them telegrams?!’
- ‘It seems you think you’re already a star? But you’re not yet a star! You’re still at the bottom of the bills, Mireille. All the work is still before you.’
- ‘So what have we achieved so far?’
- ‘Almost nothing. We have started the engine, but there is very little fuel. It can easily stop tomorrow. If that is all right with you, if it is enough for you to receive flowers and telegrams after a concert in Olympia, you can return to Avignon.’
He’s deceiving me. I can feel it, he’s deceiving me. He signed the contract to go to America! But it’s almost as though he’s reading my thoughts.
- ‘I’m not deceiving you, Mireille. It’s not too late yet to turn back. Everything depends on you. If you want to go on, you need to work. You heard what Eddie, Bruno, Charles and Henri (Henri Contet wrote the words for Piaf’s songs, he is the author of the lyrics of ‘Noël de la rue’ - I heard his and Johnny’s conversation, but didn’t listen very closely) said. Success in Olympia mustn’t turn your head.’
- ‘Ninety-five percent of the audience said they liked me!’
- ‘True. When we like someone, we forgive them much. And they excused you because you are charming, touching and naive, because you are a debutante. But next time they won’t give you any leeway. You must get away from Piaf. Or you will never become a true singer. You will only be Piaf’s shadow.’
It is difficult to hear this. Especially after the first performance in Olympia, which filled me with gladness, like a dream come true. Now I feel like a Cinderella who has lost her gilded coach. Lowering my eyes, I fall silent. There is a long pause. I don’t want to speak. I don’t want anything at all. Johnny sighs:
- ‘Would you like to see the newspapers?’
- ‘Nadine has already showed me France-Soir. They have given me eight columns on the first page!’
- ‘I don’t mean that, Mireille. Yes, your photograph is very nice. In it you are very cheerful, very pretty. You have just the right smile to wish the readers of the paper a merry Christmas. You didn’t even overpaint your eyes…’
- ‘And the long nails look good!’
- ‘Yes, but I’m not talking about that. The reactions of the critics are more important. Here. Read. Here’s Carrière’s article. And this one’s Perez’s. They attend all concerts, and so are able to make comparisons. And they know their job.’
He hands me Figaro: ‘… natural phenomenon called Mireille Mathieu, the living shade of Piaf. It’s only too bad that such an unusual resemblance can get in the way of the blossoming of a strong and original talent. But then again, didn’t even Piaf at first resemble Fréhel?’. And Combat: ‘This young songstress is television’s recent discovery. But we are disinclined to believe such sudden finds, these ‘pearls’ of song contests, and this time we have a special reason for mistrust, since Mireille Mathieu appears before us in the role of a new Edith Piaf. As yet Mireille Mathieu hasn’t been harmed by her resemblance to Piaf, nor by her sudden arrival in the world of show business, nor by a swift and loud success. But she must have new songs composed for her immediately. She must not be allowed to become Piaf’s shadow, we want to hear her again in six months, but only with her own repertoire.’
- ‘There, you see,’ remarks Johnny. ‘You’ll conquer them if you are able to forget Madame Piaf.’
His words are like blows.
- ‘You’re destroying my idol for me.’
- ‘Please, Mireille, don’t play at being Raimu!’ He pauses. ‘No one can destroy Edith Piaf. But she can destroy you.’
I am silent again.
- ‘Do you at least understand what I am saying? Or can’t anything reach you?’ He sighs again. ‘Yes! I knew what I was doing when I decided to give you this perfume for Christmas! As soon as I saw it I thought immediately that it’s as though it was made for you.’
My first real perfume. Made by Grès. And it is called Obstinacy.
When Johnny speaks to me I understand that he is right. But the moment I find myself in the whirlpool of Olympia, of flowers, laughter, compliments, I immediately forget his words. And remain ‘the little Piaf’.
One evening, as I sit in Mimi’s noisy bar, my ears catch two phrases, spoken in low voices. They are not addressed to me, but perhaps calculated so that I hear them.
- ‘She’s got a nerve, that little one, to sing ‘l’Hymne à l’amour!’’
Until then I had only admired the rose, but forgotten about the thorns. And they prick painfully.
- ‘It’s not enough to be daring. You have a short memory, boys! And it’s only been three years! When she appeared with her swollen legs… already she couldn’t fit into her shoes and performed in sandals… the public came to watch how she died onstage!’
These words hurt me. I receive three blows at once: a dart aimed at me personally, an image of Piaf, which brings a lump to my throat, and another image of a previously unknown, cruel side of the public. I leave unnoticed, without saying a word. Was it of these wounds that Johnny warned me?
What confusion! This would never have happened at home. How I miss it, my home! But then thanks to me it will become much more beautiful. And I am so made that, blessed with a good memory, I am also able to forget. So far life has done everything to allow me to do so: it surprises me with new bouquets of flowers.
So today, for example, is an important evening. For now, I am finished with Olympia. And therefore, as uncle Jo says: ‘Mademoiselle Mathieu will be introduced to society!’
Pierre Cardin is holding a large reception. My appearance is a surprise for the guests. We arrive in the evening, to leave time for rehearsal. Cardin has a magnificent house on the embankment of Anatole France. To me it seems like a palace… from the large glass dining room opens a view on the Seine, along which glide river barges. The servants place beautiful miniature lamps and silver candle holders on the tables and buffets.
- ‘Will you have enough space here, Mademoiselle?’ Asks M. Cardin.
Very intimidated, I am mute, and Johnny replies for me:
- ‘Oh! She doesn’t move around much (he should have said: ‘Doesn’t move at all’), next to the piano will be just fine.’
Monsieur Cardin doesn’t resemble anyone I know, except perhaps a portrait of Chopin which I saw in my dictionary. But, unlike the composer, Cardin is smiling. He takes care of everything himself: moves an object, replaces it with another, instructs which drinks to bring… the hall has already been transformed into a cloakroom, cosy rooms and corners have been set up everywhere, elegant furniture fills the house, paintings hang on the walls. He takes us to his bedroom and tells me to feel at home. Compared to the dining room this chamber is furnished much more modestly. My make-up case I take into the master's bathroom. Then… rehearsal begins.
- ‘I’ll give you a sign,’ says Johnny. ‘If I see that things are going well, you’ll sing ‘Jezebel’, and if it’s still okay, you’ll perform ‘La vie en rose’.‘
- ‘Why would it not go well?’
- ‘Because all of Paris will be gathered here, there will be people by whom it is not easy to be liked, they have seen and heard many artists, and not just in Paris but in London and New York as well. It is only to be hoped that they love to discover new talents and make them famous.’
Pierre Cardin, having just come in, joins the conversation:
- ‘For example, tonight there will be Juliette Achard, you know, the wife of Marcel Achard, author of ‘Potatoes’. (No, I don’t know. For me potatoes are merely a dish.) She is a won-der-ful woman, I love her dearly. She helped me become who I am. She was my first customer in those times when I sewed dresses in my attic room. Juliette goes everywhere – from performances at the Comédie-Française to the concerts of Johnny Halliday, whom she adores. And when Juliette adores someone, you may be assured that all of Paris will follow her example.’
I must perform after dinner, closer to midnight. And now it is only seven in the evening. Uncle Jo says that for me to still be in good form at midnight (‘like Cinderella!’ I think), it is absolutely necessary for me to rest, because at such a late hour I am usually asleep.
- ‘You understand, Monsieur Cardin, until now she has always performed right after the curtain went up, and was already in bed by ten p.m.’
I must rest. It’s good for my voice.
- ‘Well! My bedroom is at her command,’ says M. Cardin. ‘I’ll make sure you are sent something to eat.’
A servant brings plates on which lie slices of bread covered in minuscule black balls.
- ‘Lentils from Morbihan,’ replies uncle Jo.
I make a face:
- ‘I don’t like them. They smell of fish.’
- ‘You’ll like them later, only then you’ll call them caviar… and now, Nadine, get her into bed!’
And now I can boast that I have slept in the bed of one of the most famous Frenchmen in the world.
When Nadine woke me half an hour before the performance, Pierre Cardin asked me how I felt:
- ‘It’s so wonderful to be able to sleep like that,’ he says, ‘no matter where, at any time, just like a baby!’
- ‘But she is a baby,’ says uncle Jo, ‘and I am her nursemaid!’
A tall beautiful lady with blond lacquered hair, one of those whom they call ‘chic fou’, mad about fashion, in a narrow rose crêpe dress with a collar sewn all over with pearls (she has bare arms and knees, as fashion demands), comes to ask whether I slept well. As I understand it, she had been meeting the guests.
After her departure I ask Nadine whether she is the wife of Monsieur Cardin?
- ‘No, Mimi! She is the directress of a maison de couture, and the wife of Hervé Alphand, who was our ambassador to the United States and is now at the Quay.’
- ‘What quay?’
- ‘At the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Mimi. Or simply the Quay…’
Oh, it is so difficult in Paris! Here, they use different words even when speaking about the same thing!
Monsieur Cardin comes to get me and himself introduces me to the guests. They are all sitting at little tables, just like we in our time sat in the ‘Beer Palace', only here, naturally, everything is much more chic. I am greeted with applause, everyone murmurs, appreciatively I think. I begin with the song ‘Je sais comment’.
After each song I look at uncle Jo out of the corner of my eye. Everything is going well. I sing five songs, I don’t doubt that I could have sung a sixth…
M. Cardin takes me around to all the tables. There are princesses, princes, ministers, social lions and… Juliette Achard, russet-haired like Nadine, with a surprising facial colour. She embraces me effusively, saying that I moved her deeply, and I feel overwhelmed by her perfume. Excellent. I have conquered ‘all Paris’. My black ‘pensioner’ dress, as a journalist described it – there were many journalists there – must contrast drastically with the fancy toilettes of the ladies.
- ‘Wouldn’t you rather be dressed by a more fashionable tailor?’ Asks me Madame Achard.
I redden from shame. And with great difficulty stammer:
- ‘Monsieur Féraud is a fashionable tailor… but I know, dresses don’t look very good on me.’
Nicole Stark had once told me this. Then, her words had hurt me. Little by little the wound scabbed over. But at least it provided me with a good response to an embarrassing question…
Today is a big day. I am going to the Father. The Father of song: Maurice Chevalier. The car crossed the park of Saint-Cloud, and, arriving at Marnes-la-Coquette, took a forest path uphill, skirted around the villa and stopped before a white façade with green shutters, decorated with bronze lanterns.
The door shines dully with frosted glass. We ring. A respectable-looking maid opens the door; the butler takes us through the hall, where the guests are met by a life-sized portrait of Chevalier. And Maurice Chevalier himself, with a surprisingly fresh face, a pin with a pearl in his tie, awaits us in the salon, surrounded by his friends: Félix Paquet and his spouse Maryse, and his secretary with his wife Madeleine. They are all smiling cheerfully, as is the master of the house, who hugs and kisses me.
- ‘Ah! So that is what the little one is like! And notice I didn’t add ‘Piaf’. Because there is a big difference between you two. Piaf took the dark sidewalk of life, and you, Mireille, will follow the sidewalk of light.’
In one phrase he traced my life for me…
- ‘In a few words you managed to say to her what I’ve been trying to make her understand from the beginning,’ says Johnny, beaming.
- ‘How long have you worked with her?’
- ‘Six weeks.’
- ‘Only?! Well, it seems you’re not losing any time. I watched her performance on TV, I liked it a lot.’
I can’t lower my eyes from his, so blue, his photogenic smile. And this voice, with its pure Parisian accent, which I involuntarily begin to imitate!
–‘I heard that she will soon appear on The Eddie Sullivan Show? That’s fantastic!’
- ‘Yes, on the third of March.’
- ‘We’ll be in America at the same time. I’m departing for Puerto Rico on the twelfth of February. Imagine, I’m going to have to replace Jimmy Durante there, who is seventy-three years old. An amateur, in other words! Then I’m going to Chicago, Dallas, Houston… she’ll do all that one day too, the little one! You’ll conquer the world with your charming face yet, Mireille! I confess, I’m amazed that they decided to invite me, in spite of my age. After all, I am seventy-eight! In my time I thought: I’ll clear the way for the new generation. I have to say I felt its approach back in ’57… I already seemed old-fashioned then. It didn’t surprise me. And suddenly they invite me to America. I’ll have to change not only my surroundings, but also certain views. To America! All you can do is wonder! Interest in me is renewed! And they’re offering me a contract. At my age! They’re giving me the opportunity to make a film with Gary Cooper, with the little Leslie Caron, with Walt Disney… I am becoming renowned around the world like I have never been before. They are again summoning me onstage! I am preparing a new solo concert. It sounds dumb, but only at seventy-eight years of age did I receive my highest praise from the critics! So you can see for yourself, Mireille, what a rotten profession you have. You think that you have discovered all the secrets, and then… sudden falls and flights catch you by surprise!’
Chevalier invites me to look around the house.
- ‘Have you already been to a museum? (I shake my head negatively.) Well, I have something like it here! Are you going to Brussels? You’ll probably want to see the ‘Peeing Boy’ there. Then again, perhaps you won’t have time for that. People don’t understand that we have to choose: to go to a foreign country as a tourist or as an artist! When you have to go on stage each evening, you have no strength left to climb bell towers and find the best place to observe the city. In a word, the ‘Peeing Boy’ is a bronze manikin, a kind of fountain, from which a stream of water falls to the ground. The Belgians decorated him during celebrations. And I… what year was it in, Félix? Oh yes, in 1949. Well, I dressed this statue in a tuxedo and a straw hat. A huge crowd gathered round. So as a mark of respect, the Belgians gave it, this little bronze statue, to me. It makes you laugh!’
- ‘Looking at it I thought of my little brother.’
- ‘But your brother doesn’t wear a straw hat. And likely doesn’t walk around in a tuxedo either?’
- ‘No, but he’s got everything else…’
- ‘You know, Mireille, when Aznavour’s brother-in-law, Garvarentz, brought me the music for ‘Twist of the straw hat’, I thought: ‘This time I’ve caught it.’ And then – by the way, don’t forget this, Mireille, in your profession you have to learn constantly – I went to the Opera to take lessons! It sounds odd, but the thing is that they have a wonderful jazz dance teacher, a negro called Gene Robinson. The next day, in the morning, I went to Olympia to listen to Johnny Halliday. But my biggest surprise wasn’t Halliday. It was that during the interval some youths recognised me and said: ‘Come, Maurice, let’s do the twist!’’
Showing me different objects, he tells me an interesting story about each one. In a case he has the key to the city of Washington, which he received three years ago; he also has a warrior made from pure gold, leaning on his sword – it is a kind of prize he received to mark half a century of artistic activity. Another golden statuette – a Muse holding a crown in her hand – was given to him in Hollywood… then he shows me photographs of Eisenhower, the Queen of England and Marlene Dietrich, with dedications on them.
- ‘Ah, Marlene! I never was indifferent to her!’
Stopping before the portrait of an old man, I ask Chevalier whether it is one of his ancestors. He answers that no, it is a Picasso. Johnny comes to my rescue, saying that there is much I do not know, not having been anywhere, and that my knowledge is limited to the school certificate.
- ‘I understand that!’ Remarks Maurice. ‘My dear Mimi, do you know at what age I performed in the Casino des Tourelles, earning three franks a day? I was only thirteen and a half years old! So I most certainly didn’t learn everything I know at school!’
He asks me to describe in detail my life, family, mother… and then he takes me to a large portrait, gleaming with polish. On it is the mother of Maurice, a handsome old lady with a delicate face and the same shining blue eyes as her son; a little hat sits on her snow-white hair. Chevalier gently takes me by the arm and leads me to the park. There we take a walk together. He says that I must come here when good weather sets in… among the greenery hides a stage, built on his orders…
- ‘Will artists perform here?’
- ‘Yes, why not? And if you want, they’ll sing too. I like to walk here by myself and enjoy nature… by the way, each should seek to sing the songs which especially suit them.’
I say that Aznavour is already writing songs for me.
- ‘Yes, Aznavour is a nice guy! I especially like him for his stamina and courage. Once he performed ‘Tant de monnaie’ in my presence; Parisian boys threw small coins onstage and yelled: ‘Pick it up and get lost!’ Charles didn’t bat an eyelid and continued to sing. I told him then: ‘You’ll achieve success!’ But inside I thought: it’s not so easy! And later, when I was going through a rough patch, I found out that at one dinner party many artists spoke contemptuously of me – you’ll learn yourself that this happens often in Paris – and only Aznavour took my side, declaring: ‘Don’t speak nonsense! Each one of you owes him something. He was the first to establish the rhythm in French songs.’ Since then we have become good friends. Stark did well to turn to him. You’re in good hands.’
- ‘Thank you, Monsieur Chevalier!’
I can’t say anything else to him. I would like to, but I don’t know what. But what I do know is that his words calm me: he approves of Johnny, he approves of Aznavour, he approves of my trip to America. If he, the great Chevalier, says so, then there is nothing to be doubtful about. I thought so myself. But… as yet I feel very ignorant about life. I will never forget my first meeting with Maurice Chevalier. From this day on I felt less insecure.
We joined the others, and everyone gathered at the front door. We said goodbye very warmly and cheerfully. And suddenly the master of the house said to me in the most serious tone:
- ‘You know, I was extraordinarily lucky: I was born to a poor family. From the earliest times I had to help earn our bread, help my mother. And therefore the most important things for me became my God, my mother and my work. Serving French song became a kind of religion for me. And I think that you have stepped on the same path as I…’
I have the feeling that I am bathing in the rays of the sun. I feel that I can and am ready to become the knight of songs, the knight that is pictured in my school history textbook. Maurice has given me a motto which I must follow my whole life. I cannot read the future, but I am certain that I have received a secure armour…
On the eve of his departure for America I call him on the phone.
- ‘Monsieur Chevalier, this is Mireille…’
- ‘Oh, it is so kind of you. Just call me Maurice. I would like to redo one of my songs in your honour. You know it: ‘Mimi la blonde qui fait le tour du monde’? Only the wig needs to be changed, and I’ll sing: ‘Je suis Mimi la brune qui depuis Trafalgar fait le tour de la lune quatorze fois un quart’!’
And he laughs, we laugh. I tell him that I wish him a good journey, and ask:
- ‘Are you going by plane?’
- ‘At my age, Mimi, there is no time to go by boat.’
My first disc: Oui je crois
And I have no time even to catch my breath. I never thought that a small disc could demand so much work. Johnny carefully listened to all the songs he was offered and chose four of them. They must surely be those written by Aznavour? But Stark enlightens me. They aren’t finished yet. Songs don’t make themselves, like pancakes! It is possible to create a song in a day, but sometimes it is worked on for ten years. And even when it is finished, there is no guarantee that it will be successful.
- ‘Why not?’
- ‘Because. You can throw seeds around you by handfuls and not grow a single flower… but you know, someone sent me a song and it… well, we need to see him.’
He lives in Pigalle, in a very small, bare room. God knows I have experience of poor homes. But this I have never seen before. Does it speak of stark poverty? One can only guess… I can’t really see anything in this room because it is painted completely black: the walls, ceiling, furniture, shuttered window. And to light everything – if you can call it light! – there is only a single red lightbulb. Had I submitted to my fear I would already have been downstairs on the sidewalk. But Johnny behaves as though we are in Pierre Cardin's salon.
The appearance of the owner matches the room: he has black hair and eyes. In a muted voice he explains to us that he can only write music at night, but it disturbs his neighbours; his way out was to darken the room, and now he can work during the day without bothering anyone.
- ‘There is another possibility – to cover the accordion with a blanket, but you can’t do much work then!’
He picks up his instrument and begins to sing: ‘C’est ton nom qui berce mes jours et mes nuits…’
This haunting music enchants me. He explains that the words to the song were written by Françoise Dorin:
C’est ton nom qui partout me poursuit
C’est ton nom qui fait maintenant que j’oublie
Tous les noms qui ont rempli ma vie…
- ‘It’ll do!’ Declares Johnny.
That is how Francis Lai becomes not only my first composer but also ‘my’ accordionist. With deep emotion I find out that in the last two years of Edith Piaf’s life he didn’t part from her.
‘Emporte-moi’, ‘Le Petit Brouillard’, ‘Le Droit d’aimer’, ‘Roulez tambours’, ‘Le Rendez-Vous’, ‘C’était pas moi’, ‘Les Gens’, ‘L’Homme de Berlin’… all these songs are his.
- ‘Did you know him, Johnny?’
- ‘Yes. But I didn’t know that he is the son of a gardener. Like me.’
That is how our little society of Southerners was formed. It was at that time that Aznavour sent us the conductor of his orchestra, Paul Mauriat, a native of Marseilles. As Johnny jokes, you only have to listen to us talk, and at once you'll scent the odour of garlic! This slender young man with smooth hair and a little moustache writes strong, broad, richly orchestrated music. To the words of André Pascal he wrote for me ‘Mon credo’:
Oui je crois
qu’une vie ça commence avec des mots d’amour…
But what is happening with me? Perhaps it’s to do with the fact that Francis awakens in me the image of Piaf, dear to my heart? I learn easily ‘C’est ton nom’, but I get stuck on ‘Mon credo’. Why? Maybe because the name of the song seems to me sacrilegious? Or maybe I am hampered by the repetition of ‘I believe’: it has nothing to do with the words ‘I believe in God’, which I say gladly. One way or the other, I cannot learn it. Each time I have to sing ‘Mon credo’, my throat begins to hurt. Johnny is beside himself.
- ‘But it’s true, Johnny, I really do have a sore throat.’
- ‘No, it’s not true! It’s here that’s the problem!’
And he hits his forehead.
The big day of recording approaches. I am alarmed. There are fifteen, then fourteen, then thirteen days left…
- ‘Attention, Mimi! The countdown has begun. We’ve already hired the studio. It’s too late to turn back, the disc must be ready by our departure for Brussels.’
In the meantime, Nadine is triumphant. She has found an apartment not far from the house where Stark lives with his family. It is for lease, with furniture, and looks very nice: there is a dining room, two bedrooms and a bathroom, which seems to me enormous (it even has a window!). Nadine has also hired a young maid: she is to look after Mademoiselle Mathieu.
It seems that nothing will stop me from working here in peace. But no, fear stops me. The mere thought that the maid, having finished work, will leave and I will be left alone…
Nadine takes the trouble to explain to M. Stark that I am not used to living alone. I simply can’t. It’s beyond me. He is stunned. So many young women crave independence and want to live away from their families! Live their own lives!
- ‘I know, I know, but it’s not for me. I am very happy, uncle Jo, but I still need a house, a family,’ I say, barely holding back tears. ‘If I remain alone in this apartment I will feel like an orphan. I was fine with you…’
- ‘But you can’t stay at my house, Mireille, think! You’ll be visited by poets, musicians, colleagues, important people, reporters… you need to have your own home. Believe me, you’ll be happy and proud of it yet.’
- ‘I don’t think so.’
- ‘All right. In that case we’ll discuss it in Avignon.’
I hadn’t been in Avignon for two months. The grand welcome the simple worker of a bankrupt envelope factory received surpassed anything she could have imagined: there was a reception in the town hall! M. Henri Duffaut, the mayor, made a speech:
- ‘From now on our city is famous not only for the bridge across the Rhône and the Papal palace, but also for you!’
The fanfare accompanies me to the theatre next door, where I give out autographs. Excited young people carry me on their shoulders, as though I had won a football match. I am especially touched by Mme Julien – she comes here to hug her ‘little lazybones’.
- ‘Do you know how I encourage my students now? I tell them about you!’
- ‘You can’t use me as an example!’
- ‘Yes I can, Mireille. Not everyone finds learning easy. You showed that it is possible to achieve success by developing your gift.’
With each day I become more and more certain that I would never have achieved anything without Johnny. And now a family conference is being held in our house. But first they have to make nine-year-old Régis shut up, not without some difficulty, because he categorically wants to tell us why he wants to be a footballer, while his older brother Roger declares that when he grows up he’ll be a baker, ‘because everyone needs bread’.
- ‘Let’s return to Mireille, however,’ says uncle Jo. ‘She doesn’t want to live in Paris by herself.’
- ‘Naturally she can’t live by herself!’ Says Mama. ‘But I can’t come to live with her, leaving my husband, the babies and my other daughters, who are even younger than she.’
- ‘Perhaps my sister Irène…’ Papa enters the conversation.
- ‘Oh yes! Auntie!’
I have always loved my aunt – my godmother, who has not lived an easy life.
- ‘Do you understand what you’re asking of your sister? For you daughter she has to leave her son!’
- ‘But her son is an adult. He has two children of his own.’
- ‘Plus she has a job.’
- ‘She won’t be sitting there with nothing to do. I think it’s much more interesting to help Mireille with her performing career than wreck your back at the eau-de-Javel factory.
- ‘She’s worked there for twenty-five years, everyone respects her!’
- ‘Well, do you think they won’t respect her in Paris?!’
And soon Aunt Irène is coming off the train at the Lyon station.
She has been given a detailed description of Nadine: this red-haired woman will meet her in a blue coat, with a bouquet of roses in her hands. Nadine herself had immediately recognised my auntie, a small woman, clean as a whistle, with unusual, rarely seen violet eyes.
My auntie likes the apartment very much, especially the kitchen. She is after all a skilled cook…
- ‘You won’t have to concern yourself with the house here, auntie. I have a maid!’
My aunt is, however, very meticulous, and unstoppable. She organises the apartment, buys cupboards, orders wardrobes to be put in. And we talk, we talk, we talk.
- ‘You talk too much, Mireille. You must go to bed, it’s necessary for your voice to sound good. You are after all recording a disc tomorrow.’
Johnny has already instructed her!
And tomorrow comes.
- ‘If you had only seen it, auntie! A whole orchestra for me alone! Forty musicians and eight choristers! The recording was made in a studio which is ten times larger than the whole of our apartment! Everyone behind their music stands, and Paul Mauriat on the conductor’s platform. Just imagine! It was beautiful! ‘My’ orchestra! My God, I was so excited… I sometimes laughed and sometimes cried, forgetting myself. It was a much bigger shock than the day I first went before an audience. If you only knew what a difficult thing a recording is! The musicians keep on repeating different sections… they have to stop because of tricks of the notes, can you believe it? And they constantly correct things on their music… it’s such hard work!’
- ‘What about you, did you sing?’
- ‘Not yet. I was only listening to ‘my’ orchestra and ‘my’ choristers, to commit everything to memory. I’ll begin singing tomorrow.’
- ‘In that case, go to bed. You have to look after your voice.’
The next day the studio is empty. Where have they all gone? Perhaps it’s a strike? No, Johnny explains. It turns out the musicians have finished their work. My turn has come. In the glass cage there are only Paul Mauriat, the sound technician and Johnny. I am alone in the huge studio, in some kind of helmet and with earphones on. I listen to the sound of the orchestra.
- ‘This helmet bothers me!’
- ‘You’ll get used to it.’
If I get used to it, it won’t be soon. The helmet gets in my way. And then again I like to sing before an audience. I have always had one: my brothers and sisters, my friends, the neighbours’ children, various acquaintances. How wonderful everything was in Olympia: musicians behind me, applauding along with the audience before me… but to sing just like that, for no one, standing before the microphone – it’s not right, it confuses me.
- ‘But you’re singing for many thousands of people, Mireille, remember it once and for all.’
Performing in Télé-Dimanche, I barely thought about the microphone. But here it is a different story. It sticks up in front of my nose, I can't move my eyes from the glass cage, my ears are squeezed by the helmet, there are cables everywhere, and I imagine that I am turning into some kind of machine.
- ‘Stop! Mireille, you’re not doing it right. Start again.’
- ‘Stop! You’re out of tune.’
- ‘Stop! You’re behind. What are you waiting for?’
- ‘Stop! Where are you hurrying to?!’
- ‘Stop! What have you sung? I didn’t understand a thing. You’re muttering I don’t know what!’
And so hour after hour. Each phrase. I start again. And again. And again.
- ‘Please, one more time from the beginning, Mireille.’
When Johnny is quiet, Paul pitches in:
- ‘Keep the rhythm, Mireille.’
- ‘Two eighths, Mireille. La, la, la…’
- ‘Don’t yell so, Mireille. Listen to the music.’
No, I would never have believed that it is so painful to record a disc. I understand well that it must be perfect, because when you sing in a hall the excited audience can forgive you your mistakes. But if I haven’t yet achieved perfection perhaps it’s too early to be recording a disc?
- ‘This disc must come out, Mireille. Without it you don’t really exist. You are already at the back of the hall. The public is forgetting you. What is the ‘little Mathieu’ today? A young woman who has won the contest Télé-Dimanche and performed in Olympia for two weeks. But that’s nothing. You were only heard by thirty thousand people.’
- ‘Don’t fourteen million TV viewers count?’
- ‘Since then they have seen and heard many other singers. To keep afloat you urgently need a disc. And if it doesn’t appear in six months you’ll be forgotten.’
I know that he is right.
The next day things go just as badly. From eight in the morning until midday I sing ‘Mon credo’ again and again. At each phrase I am stopped, and I sing it again.
- ‘Oui, je crois qu’on pourra mêler nos larmes et nos joies…’
- ‘Stop. Mireille! You’re cold. Where are your tears? Where are your joys?’
There’s no lack of tears. They stream down my cheeks. I’m not going to make it. I take off the earphones. Silence reigns in the studio. Only my sobs and my efforts to quell them can be heard… but this is simply incredible… whistling comes from the glass cage… yes! Uncle Jo is whistling! Paul is silent. The sound technician unfurls a newspaper. They are waiting for me to relax. As though my tears were so much rain!
The minutes pass. Time is needed for me to calm down. I dig in my bag, I take out a handkerchief, I blow my nose. In the glass cage, no one moves. I clear my throat and put the earphones back on.
- ‘I am ready!’
Johnny stops whistling, the technician puts away the newspaper. The music begins. Paul conducts the beats and gives me a sign. This time I successfully finish the song.
- ‘Enough for today,’ Johnny’s voice sounds through the glass. ‘We’ll begin again tomorrow.’
‘Oui, je crois’ - yes, I believe - that without the love, kindness and tenderness of Auntie I would never have managed to finish this song!
Finally ‘Mon credo’ has been recorded. I hope that the song ‘C’est ton nom’, which I know well, will emerge by itself. I hope too much…
- ‘Stop, Mireille! ‘C’est ton nom qui berce mes jours et mes nuits’. We’re hearing ‘verce’. Articulate the words more clearly. We’ll begin everything again.’
Francis Lai tries to encourage me:
- ‘Don’t be disappointed, Mimi, it happens to all singers. Then they take the better parts and glue them together, and it sounds fine!’
But nothing’s fine! The thing is that we didn’t finish in the allotted time and now we have to pay extra for taking up the studio longer than was agreed. Uncle Jo doesn’t say anything to me, but I find out about it from Nadine. Barclay is not only the distributor, he is the producer. In the evening, at home, I have a worried expression.
- ‘Uncle Jo put a bet on me, like on a racehorse, and what if I don’t reach the finish line?’
- ‘Don’t worry, don’t worry, you will,’ Auntie calms me. ‘You’re our Roquépine!’ (A famous racehorse who in those times held victory after victory).
Nonetheless now for several days uncle Jo has a wrinkle on his forehead. But it turns out that I wasn’t the cause. Things are much worse… in the office on Avenue Wagram Nadine tells me that Johnny has, not for the first time, gone to Avenue Gabriel, to the United States embassy, to apply for visas.
- ‘Why hasn’t he received them?’
- ‘Because consent to your performance in the States still hasn’t been received.’
She explains to me that the Americans stick closely to the rules in these matters. Even to perform once in such a well-known show as The Eddie Sullivan Show, each foreign artist must receive special permission. Johnny returns, and by his face we understand that consent still hasn’t been granted…
To tell the truth, I don’t realise all the importance of what is happening. And with great pleasure I go to Brussels, where I again meet Sacha Distel and Dionne Warwick, feeling as though I am once more diving into the atmosphere which reigns in Olympia.
The Ancienne Belgique is an old theatre, holding far from the last place in the history of music hall; it is full of shadows, frescoes and portraits.
- ‘Today I can say that everyone from Chevalier to Distel have been here,’ says the director, M. Mathonet.
I walk past the long row of photographs hung on the walls.
- ‘Oh, The Beatles! I adore them!’
Together with Elvis they are the only English-speaking musicians that I know.
- ‘But I don’t like this one!’
Uncle Jo looks at me sternly and angrily:
- ‘Do you know Trini Lopez?’
- ‘Have you seen his film ‘Made in Paris’?’
- ‘Have you seen him onstage?’
- ‘Then why don’t you like Trini Lopez?’
- ‘I like Sacha Distel more. I‘d love to listen all day when he plays the guitar.’
Uncle Jo explodes, but without raising his voice:
- ‘Trini Lopez hasn’t done you any harm! I wish with all my heart that one day you have the name he does! And I also wish that no one will ever say: ‘I don’t like Mireille Mathieu!’ You really are a child! Imagine it if some reporter heard your words, and tomorrow people would read in the newspaper: ‘Mireille Mathieu doesn’t like Trini Lopez!’ What will you look like then?’
He doesn’t have seem very happy at all.
- ‘You don’t really know anything, Mireille! And when you don’t know anything the wisest thing to do is keep quiet.’
- ‘But I only said it to you.’
- ‘Even that you shouldn’t’ve done. You have never heard me say anything bad about the people in our profession: it is a very difficult one.’
- ‘But you don’t like everyone, either.’
- ‘I never say anything about such a person, I try not to think about them and never have anything to do with them. That’s all.’
He really is displeased. In a minute he tells me that the musicians will be rehearsing with the sound technician during the day, so it would be good if I had a rest now. He instructs me to be escorted… but at the thought that I will be alone in the hotel room, although a quite comfortable one, a lump comes to my throat. With the press-attaché of the company ‘Barclay’ I go to the bar of the hotel ‘L’Amigo’ and drink fruit juice there. A very kindly barman starts a conversation with us. His name is M. Myrtil. I confess to him that when I’m not singing I am very bored, and that if I had known that I would be free from rehearsal during the day, I would have spent the time profitably, for example by singing something for children, since I like performing for them. M. Myrtil says that the ‘Bees’ would be beside themselves with joy if Mireille Mathieu came to visit them. He is talking about a home for crippled children. Is it far from here? Not very. Half an hour by car. And now we are already on our way.
M. Myrtil must have warned them about our arrival, because the moment the door opens, they are there, the little ones, and…
Dear God! I will not forget this for the rest of my life! I could not even imagine something like this… crutches, prosthetic legs, twisted arms, damaged legs, huge, deformed heads… the shock was so enormous that I couldn’t help myself: I burst into tears. Small hands touch me: a tiny boy is trying to comfort me. He can’t walk.
- ‘Polio… and he’s an orphan,’ someone explains.
Oh, how I would like to hug him, comfort him, take him away with me… I involuntarily remember my little brothers, much more happy… I lift the child up and sit him on my knees. I ask him his name.
- ‘Well, Bruno, now we’re all going to sing: ‘Alouette, gentille alouette…’
Finally I exhaust my repertoire of children’s songs and begin to think about leaving. Bruno’s not letting me go. I promise him that I’ll come back.
(I kept my word. Each time I find myself in Brussels I visit the ‘Bees’. From the most distant lands I send postcards to M. Myrtil with requests to hug them all. And not long ago, when I performed in the Congress Palace, a young man came to see me backstage… I recognised him immediately by his eyes. It was Bruno! He had had treatment and could walk again).
I come on time to rehearsal, where uncle Jo is waiting for me. I go onstage. I perform ‘Jezebel’. As yet everything is going well. But the moment I begin to sing ‘Le Noël de ma rue’, I imagine the sad eyes and faces of the little ones. And I suddenly fall silent.
- ‘Please excuse me…’
The musicians stop playing. Uncle Jo comes up to me, he is disappointed but affectionate:
- ‘But look, Mimi, isn’t this what I was talking about this morning? Is that how you prepare for your performance? It’s simply terrible that you suddenly have these moods…’
I shake my head energetically and tell him about my visit to the ‘Bees’. I wait for Johnny to be angry… but he doesn’t say anything, only asks the musicians to wait five minutes while I control myself, and gives me a clean handkerchief and a glass of water.
- ‘It’s all right,’ I whisper.
And then he says to me quietly:
- ‘You understand, Mimi, if this happened to you in public, it would be a real catastrophe. Now you know why I insist that you rest before each performance.’
He is absolutely right. I am too excited and I can’t settle down. Uncle Coquatrix encourages me: ‘It’ll be all right!’ That must mean that so far it hasn’t been.
Next to the Hotel Amigo, on the way to the wonderful Grand-Place, there is near the wall a bronze statue, whose elbow gleams like the sun, because it is stroked by everyone who passes by. I do not know the name of this saint, but, like all the saints, he must have some virtues. M. Myrtil tells me that I must think of a wish while moving the palm of my hand from the shoulder to the heel of the statue, pausing, naturally, at the elbow. My wish is simple. I must perform well tonight.
This is a very kind saint. And here is the best proof of this – as soon as I appear onstage, the audience greets me with applause. It seems even the public here are generous.
- ‘Thanks, little one. You’ve warmed the hall up well for us!’ Says one of the four Brutos to me.
The great Aldo makes me laugh to the point of tears. When he introduces himself, he miaows loudly! Naturally, I stay in the wings to listen to Dionne Warwick. Her voice is so forceful and at the same time so velvety…
Standing next to me, Uncle Jo whispers:
- ‘Watch how she moves… watch closely. Looking at others you can learn the secrets of the trade.’
Dionne is superb. She is wearing a tight, glittery dress. She is older than me by six years and she has already acquired seventy pairs of shoes! At the very first rehearsal she exclaimed, turning to me: ‘Oh! What a pretty little foot!’ I call her ‘caille’. She responds with ‘darling‘. I don’t understand what she sings, but it sounds very beautiful: ‘Aye cray aloun’…
- ‘You really must learn English,’ says to me Johnny.
- ‘Has permission arrived for us to go to America?’
- ‘No. Not yet.’
- ‘But I already know how to speak English.’
- ‘How do you know that?’
- ‘I’ve watched the films of Laurel and Hardy on television.’
And I carefully imitate Stan and Oliver in broken English. Johnny rolls his eyes up to the ceiling. Sometimes he despairs of me.
On the first of March he says:
- ‘We’re not going, Mireille.’
- ‘We’re not going to America?!’
- ‘No. Can you imagine the scandal if you are sent home from the airport! You’ll be in a terrible situation! They are serious about these things over there.’
- ‘But why don’t they give me permission? I love the Americans so much!’
- ‘They don’t know you at all. They told me: ‘We only give permits to exceptional artists, to stars’. They demand proof that you have had important engagements. What can we mention? Performances in Brussels, in four French cities and in Olympia, and your name was always at the bottom of the bills.’
Stark calls Jack in New York and Teddy in London.
Jack Bat is a talent scout at The Eddie Sullivan Show, and Teddy Wimpress is a manager. The former was alerted by the latter. A three-way telephone conversation then takes place between them and Stark, from which it becomes clear that Jack wants to cancel but Teddy doesn’t.
- ‘But one way or the other,’ says Stark, ‘it’s too late now, Jack. The permit won’t reach us before our departure. And incidentally, they also demanded whether I knew who made their minister get up from his bed at three a.m. regarding this permit. I replied that I had nothing to do with it! All right. I agree, but at your risk and peril.’
- ‘We’re going?’
- ‘Yes, we’re going. But I’m not sure they’ll receive us!’
My last performance in Brussels occurrs on the second of March. And on the third we leave Paris… I wonder what the weather is like in New York? Auntie is utterly calm, as though we are talking about a trip from Marseilles to Avignon. After all, I am only going for a few days. She won’t be accompanying me.
- ‘By your return I’ll have finished arranging the apartment!’
This is my first long journey. On the plane with me are uncle Jo and some of his friends: Jan, one of a duet; the other half, his cousin Jil, stayed in Paris. Jan will write the words for my songs.
- ‘You understand, the wave of ‘yeah, yeah’ has started all over again!’
Together they have composed songs for Johnny (Halliday): ‘Depuis qu’ma môme’, ‘Kili watch’… he is very funny. Teddy, the manager who organised my contract with Eddie Sullivan, is also flying with us, as is Eddie Barclay, who has brought five members of his staff, two photographers and the conductor François Rauber. The steward offers us champagne… but everyone is a little on edge because of the permit. Except me. I laugh, I eat, I sleep. Dimly I hear the voice of uncle Jo: ‘She is utterly carefree!’ And that of Barclay, who says placidly: ‘If they send her back… we’ll return with the next flight.’
My discovery of America
I exit the plane. They photograph me. The little Mimi and the big gentlemen.
- ‘But I won’t understand a word, Johnny!’
- ‘You say ‘hello’ and you smile.’
The immigration office. Jack Bat signals to us from far away. Something like:
- ‘Calmly. Don’t hurry.’
- ‘What is he trying to say?’ I ask.
- ‘That we’ll have to sleep here!’
Almost all of our group passes without delays. Everyone has tourist visas. No problem. My turn. The police officer:
- ‘Miss Ma-ti-ou?’
- ‘Hello!’ (And a smile).
He murmurs something and hands me… the permit. Wonderful!
- ‘Mireille! Stay calm! He wants you to return to the other side of the barrier… and go through again with your permit and your passport.’
- ‘But it was he who…’
- ‘Don’t argue. Go.’
- ‘Are you going with me?’
- ‘No. You’ll go alone and come back, looking as though you have just come off the plane. That’s the rule.’
On exiting the airport I am again photographed. With Jack, Jan, François and the others. They all sigh in relief.
By what miracle was the permit obtained? I find out later. It was thanks to M. Hervé Alphand, who, five months previously, had left the position of the French Ambassador in the United States and based himself in our Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and who only a month ago attended the reception at the embankment of Anatole-France. It seems it was he who woke the American minister. I did well that night to sleep in the bed of Pierre Cardin! I sang well and impressed His Excellency, which is why he confirmed that I have the reputation of a star in France!
- ‘Remember!’ Said Johnny. ‘This permit doesn’t give you the right to one thing: to think you really are a star! Because you have not yet become one. But we act as though you are a star in the hope that one lovely day you do turn into one.’
This phrase is exactly in the style of uncle Jo. It makes me both hot and cold, as they say in our parts. And all his conversations invariably end with the phrase: ‘But it will be very hard!’
- ‘Hello, Mama! There is a lot of noise in the drugstore… can you hear me?’
- ‘Yes, I can hear you, but there is a crowd of people around me! Well, how did you find New York?’
- ‘It’s big!’
- ‘Do you like it there?’
- ‘Not really! I constantly have to tilt my head up, my neck hurts.’
- ‘Are there many people?’
- ‘Plenty. But all the same I keep asking myself whether there are enough people to fill all these skyscrapers. Those who are small, like us, feel like gnomes!’
- ‘Do they have nice streets?’
- ‘Of course. But there are no dogs.’
- ‘Imagine that… they have no dogs! Yes, this country isn’t for our Youki.’
- ‘Perhaps I will see them. I have only just arrived, I’m unpacking my suitcase.’
- ‘Are you well accommodated?’
- ‘Oh yes! It’s as though I live in a palace, I have a magnificent room in the Waldorf Astoria. And I won’t be afraid here, because uncle Jo has been put in the room next door, which has a salon to receive reporters, and on the other side is Jan. But, you know, my little radio isn’t working.’
- ‘Did you break it?’
- ‘No. But you understand, France is so far away from here…’
Uncle Jo returns me to the real world:
- ‘Hang up, Mimi, they await us in the restaurant for breakfast.’
- ‘Sorry, Mama, I have to hang up. Monsieur Sullivan is waiting for us in the restaurant for breakfast.’
- ‘At this hour?’
- ‘It’s midday here, Mama.’
- ‘Midday?! And night is falling here!’
Yes, it is the wrong side of the world and I am completely disoriented. Business meetings await Johnny, and he entrusts Jan to take me round the city. On return he asks me for my impressions. I hesitate with my answer. He hurries me. Were I by myself, I would immediately buy a return plane ticket. There can be no talk about walking on the sunny side of the street here! The houses are so tall that the sun’s rays don’t reach the sidewalk.
He tells me that New York always has this impression on Europeans who come here for the first time. But it is only a first-day malaise; on the second day a person feels better, on the third he begins to say: ‘I like New York’, and on leaving, he swears that he’ll return.
- ‘Well, what else did you do in the city?’
- ‘I also ate popcorn, then Jan photographed me before the giant bronze Atlas, he is made up of two ‘blocks’ (thus I learned a new word!), then I went inside St. Patrick’s Cathedral for a short prayer, and a taxi took us to the Empire State Building – as Jan explained, the tallest building in the world. At the hundred and second storey, we saw the sun, and New York far below us. I looked for our skyscraper with the Waldorf… but there were too many of them. I told Jan that I forgot my umbrella in Paris and we bought another one in the neighbouring shop, Macy’s. My head spun there. The Lyons Station is nothing compared to it. Jan found out for me: they have eleven million employees!’
Saying this, I laughed. (Uncle Jo looked at me with his blue eyes. He apparently couldn’t see what was funny in this).
- ‘Then we took a taxi again and here I am, but my legs are still hurting.’
- ‘All right,’ says Johnny, ‘the holidays are over now. Do you know what time it is now?’
- ‘Seven in the evening.’
- ‘No, it’s one a.m. Therefore a light dinner and bed, immediately. You’ll need your voice tomorrow. Where did that scarf come from?’
- ‘It has an image of the Statue of Liberty on it. I found it at Macy’s.’
- ‘You can put it where you like, but not around your neck. You must get rid of this habit, Mireille. I’ve already asked you. Lord God blessed you with a magnificent voice. Don’t treat it as though it isn’t fragile, or it will become thus…’
The symbol of the studio C.B.S. is an eye. A large eye which is displayed on the company’s building. This consists of two sections, but both face onto a street with one-way movement, so we had to make a detour. On the way, in the limousine, Johnny explains to me: I mustn’t forget that I have a unique opportunity, that the only French performers invited to 'TheEddie Sullivan Show’ were Maurice Chevalier and Montand, that even Aznavour hasn’t appeared in it even once, that this is the most popular show in which appear the most popular singers; proof of this is that today there will be many of the stars, including the great actor Ray Milland. This name is unfamiliar to me. But Johnny knows him. Or rather not, he doesn’t know him personally, he has never met him, but he has seen his films. And speaks of him like a fan! He tells me in detail about his movie ‘Lost Weekend’, for which he received an Oscar… Johnny tells me that he has also acted with Paulette Goddard and Ginger Rogers. All this tells me nothing. And do I really have to remember it?
The studios of C.B.S. don’t at all resemble Theatre 102. There are half a dozen giant cameras, like large insects surrounded by agitated ants: technicians, musicians, costumers… everything is much bigger, and I feel smaller and smaller, and ever more transparent.
- ‘Hello! Monsieur Stark? I am Mr. Stark.’
This is the co-producer of the programme, and he bears the same name as uncle Jo.
- ‘But no, Mimi, I assure you, we’re not cousins. We are not at all related.’
It must be true, because Johnny always has a small cross hanging from his neck, and through the open collar of Mr. Stark’s shirt I see a Star of David. Mr. Stark is falling off his feet to serve M. Stark. He finds M. Ray Milland and whispers into his ear, telling him about this young French girl who has arrived with a dozen companions. Johnny is finally able to shake the hand of his idol. I see that he is very emotional. He gives me the signal to approach and introduces me to him. I vigorously shake the star’s hand:
- ‘Hello, Monsieur Milande.’
I feel that Johnny is embarrassed. He has to explain in English that I left my small home village not very long ago. But the great actor seems very pleased.
- ‘Monsieur Milland says that you have a very pretty little face and that you ought to make movies.’
Johnny is on cloud nine with happiness.
But he doesn’t stay there long. Because of me.
Mr. Bloch, the conductor of the orchestra, asks me: ‘In what key?’ I begin to understand why Johnny took François Rauber with us: he responds for me, because ‘keys’ might as well be Chinese for all I know of them. But what I understand at once is that the musicians are superb. The orchestra plays for the second time, François remarks on my forte. The lights are trained on me. M. Sullivan isn’t here, and it is his son-in-law who takes the rehearsal.
- ‘Attention, Mimi! Sing as though you are on direct transmission!’
I make the sign of the cross. The introduction to ‘L’Hymne à l’amour’ is played, and… I start late. Although I was observing François, standing next to the camera and counting the beats for me. The musicians glance at each other. François explains to Mr. Bloch that I am a debutante, that I have practically never been onstage, that I am very nervous, that I am simply terrified of being in New York… we start again.
The prelude. This time I am so afraid that I start too soon. The musicians share another look. François goes to Mr. Bloch. Johnny’s head appears.
- ‘What is it, Mireille?’
- ‘I don’t know. Let’s try again.’
I understand how tightly strung his nerves are. Mine also. Mr. Stark – the other one – offers me a drink of something. I would like some water very much, my mouth has gone dry.
The third attempt. I begin well. But I finish badly. I can’t take myself in hand. I catch Teddy’s worried look. A voice saying I don’t know what comes from the loud-speaker.
- ‘What is he saying?’
- ‘That they can’t afford to lose time because the great artists (and among them, a certain Diana Ross, as yet unknown to the public) are awaiting their turn; we’ll have to return for rehearsal this afternoon.’
In the limousine:
- ‘You see what the Americans are like, Mimi. They are great professionals. One, two, that’s it. François will rehearse with you at the hotel. Don’t cry, or have a good cry, if that will help you. It’s not your fault. It is perhaps mine. I must have gone too fast…’
Eddie Barclay remains impassive behind his cigar:
- ‘It’s going very well. I’m inviting you all to dinner tonight!’
- ‘All right, but not for too long. She must sleep.’
On Saturday is the dress rehearsal and the recording of my two songs: ‘L’Hymne à l’amour’ and ‘Mon credo’. This time, I commence and finish well. I would have liked to see the face of Mr. Sullivan, but he stays invisible.
- ‘Is that better, Johnny?’
- ‘It’s not bad.’
To completely discharge the atmosphere, it is he who takes us all out to dinner. He avoids popularly fashionable restaurants such as ‘La Fonda del Sol’ or ‘Hawaiian Room’ (‘No, no, nothing exotic! I want her in good shape for tomorrow!’). He rents a room in ‘Tavern on the Green’, ‘to reconcile her with New York’, he says. It’s in the heart of Central Park, on a green lawn, away from the traffic. Only ancient-looking carriages passes by from time to time. The chauffeurs park the limousines out of sight. It is not yet warm enough to dine on the terrace, but the salon gives an incongruous view on a country landscape in the midst of the city. In the distance tower the skyscrapers, all lit up like great chandeliers. Teddy, Eddie, Jack, Jan, and of course Johnny do everything in their powers to make me laugh and forget that tomorrow I will have to play my ‘American card’ in only a few minutes.
Finally, I see Mr. Sullivan for the first time. He has a typical American smile. He has a manner which makes you believe that you are one of the most important people in the world. Without understanding English, I know that he will present me in such a way that I will be obliged to ‘break the record!’, unless of course I am a flop: and here it comes: ‘the little singer from France with a voice which reminds me of that of the great Edith Piaf…’
At the end, understanding that simply saying ‘hello!’ is not enough, I lift my hand to my lips and say with my Southern accent:
- ‘I blow you a kiss…’
It seems incredible, but the evidence is indisputable: the programme had such a success that C.B.S. is sent letters by courier, demanding my reappearance, I am asked for my autograph on the sidewalk in front of the Waldorf, and people recognise me on the street.
- ‘Do you know how many spectators you had, Mimi? Ninety-eight million.’
- ‘Dear God…!’
I began to like New York!
Johnny took us to Radio City Music Hall where films and shows are constantly alternating, such as that of the most famous dancing girls in the United States, ‘The Rockets’. I try to count them, but I don’t get anywhere, as they move like one person. Thirty two! Thirty six! Thirty five!
- ‘Surely not, Mimi, they dance in pairs.’
- ‘And how many seats are there in this hall?’
- ‘Six thousand two hundred.’
- ‘I would love to sing in such a huge hall one day…’
On returning to the hotel we find a surprise awaiting us: Bruno Coquatrix and his wife are in New York for the recital of Charles Aznavour! And we are all going there! We must support our countryman, although Charles had already made a great American career. His discs are in the shops on Broadway. And to think that ‘mine’ hasn’t even appeared in Paris! Charles has adapted the lyrics of his songs…
- ‘You see, Mimi, you must learn English,’ Johnny whispers to me.
In the same voice I reply:
- ‘I am already having enough trouble speaking French!’
And I laugh. This makes the row before us turn to look at me.
- ‘And you must learn not to laugh so loudly!’
After the concert we go to have dinner in ‘Sardi’, the artists’ restaurant where, after a premiere, they all gather, awaiting the first morning papers with the comments of the critics. I tell Charles, who has been to New York numerous times, that on arriving in this large city I felt myself an insignificant bug.
- ‘But you had in you pocket an engagement for ‘The Eddie Sullivan Show’! Me, I came here in ’47 – you had just been born then – armed with only my motto ‘to assimilate’. The second time, five years after that, was a little better – I was Piaf’s stage manager and lighting technician. And I also performed at the start of the concert – I raised the curtain.’
Bruno Coquatrix recalls how three years ago, he went to Carnegie Hall, and ceded his place to his eminent American colleague, Schubert, a theatre performer. Eddie Barclay remembers that they had to seat spectators on the stage, and that Charles sang with two hundred people either side of him, like in the time of Molière…
I listen carefully and pray to the heavens that what enters my head stays there: Molière’s times, Carnegie Hall, Schubert… how I need my ears and my eyes. With them I remember, learn, remember some more… and learn good manners, too, how not to laugh too loudly, not mix up the knives and forks, not drain my glass of water all at once. Ah! ah! ah! ah!
- ‘What makes you laugh, Mireille?’
Shall I tell them, or shall I not? Too bad, I’ll tell them:
- ‘I think that this evening, at this table, I am not the only one to have nothing but a school certificate…’
- ‘Very true,’ says Charles. ‘That’s why I always make spelling mistakes!’
- ‘Really?’ I say, delighted. ‘But then, how do you write?’
- ‘I write how I hear. That is the important thing. And as for spelling mistakes, there is always some kind soul to correct me, when it isn’t my editor! What is important is not how to write the word, it is the music of it.’
The next day, at the concert of James Brown, the lesson is very different. He is a young Negro, all in white and in a trance, which he communicates to the entire hall. It seems the boys and girls would climb the curtain if there had been one, they jump from their seats, yelling, just barely contained by a straining line of policemen at the foot of the stage. From time to time a bodyguard carries an inanimate body or hysterical girl out of the hall, like a sack. I am terrified. If Mama saw this… she would want me to stop being a singer! But I only want to sing to make people happy.
- ‘But he’s going to die onstage!’ Says Paulette Coquatrix.
We imagine him to be recuperating backstage. But, resurrected, he returns to take a bow, throwing a glance at the audience, before disappearing again in the wings. Protected by the bodyguards, we are hauled and pushed to the artists’ entrance; then to his dressing room.
James Brown is perfectly composed, all smiles. Around him, everything is calmly organised: a thermos for him, chairs for us; the costumer prepares his outfit for the coming session… and James is putting curlers in his hair.
On exiting, Johnny tells me :
- ‘You have seen a master. He never lost control. His ‘madness’ was a masterpiece.’
- ‘I’m engaging him,’ says Bruno.
- ‘But he’ll break all the chairs in Olympia!’
Bruno responds that he’s used to it. Bécaud broke the first!
I am pensive. For me, this music resembles the music of the Devil.
As if in response to this thought, while we take a walk in Harlem on Sunday morning we pass a church in Amsterdam Street, and we enter, Johnny and I, without knowing that we’ll be treated to an extraordinary sight. I am astounded by the church itself first of all. It doesn’t at all resemble our cathedrals, where you are surrounded by their shadows and their lights: here, everything is lit up like a schoolroom. It has none of our silences either: here, hundreds of Negros rhythmically clap their hands in time with the singing of the choir…
Our intrusion – the only whites there – seemingly passes unnoticed. Only a matron, wearing a hat decked with amazing flowers, as are all the women there, slides over on her bench and motions for us to sit. The singers’ voices are superb, profound, convincing. Even without understanding the words, one can feel that they are praising God.
In the first row there are paralytics on stretchers, with their white-robed nurses and, in front of them, children who raise their small voices in reciting psalms, sorry, ‘gospels’. The rhythm accelerates, is amplified, the voice of the bishop is louder and louder, finally stopping with a phrase which asks, as Johnny explains, for the Lord’s blessing… and, suddenly, a little girl gets up and begins to dance, eyes raised to the ceiling, followed by another, then another… it’s unbelievable, incredible… they dance with all their souls, like me when I sang in the church of Notre-Dame during mass, taken by our priest M. Gontand.
On leaving, the bishop with curling white hair greets us. Johnny speaks with him, introduces me, and translates:
- ‘Next time,’ he says to me, ‘you must sing with them.’
Yes. I decide to learn English on the spot! I would love to sing gospels…
When we come back to the hotel, Johnny tells me that I must pack. Are we going back already?
- ‘No, we’re leaving for Hollywood!’
- ‘But it wasn’t on our itinerary?’
- ‘Now it is. We must strike while the iron still glows after 'The Eddie Sullivan Show’.’
That can easily be converted into a song. During the journey Jan made it into a rhyme, and we all chorused it happily, though missing the voices of Coquatrix and Eddie Barclay, who remained in New York. The first stop is Las Vegas, California, the pearl of Nevada:
- ‘Hello, Mama? Guess where I am? In Las Vegas! You know… the city of slot-machines. It’s unbelievable, you come out of the plane, you are already on a carpet with slot-machines on either side. They are everywhere, one cannot escape them. So far I’ve won four dollars.’
- ‘How much is that in franks?’
- ‘I don’t know. But I used them to buy a lipstick, several postcards and a cap with stars on it.’
- ‘Are you well accommodated?’
- ‘Oh yes! I have a large room, on one side is Jan’s, and on the other a salon to receive reporters, and uncle Jo’s room. It’s a hotel the like of which you’ve never seen. They are all like this here, with a casino and a theatre inside. We are where Line Renaud performed in a variety show last year. Here the audience can eat and drink during a performance.’
- ‘And you’re going to sing there?’
- ‘No, but uncle Jo knows many people and he’s making contacts, he says.’
- ‘Is it a nice city?’
- ‘Uncle Jo says that it grows like a mushroom, my school textbook used the same expression. That before there was nothing here and that on each visit one finds something new. But you know, it’s not really a city, it’s an avenue! Imagine our Rue de la République, but much bigger and with casinos everywhere. The lights, I don’t even know how to describe them to you! It’s like shop windows at Christmas-time! And there are no clocks.’
- ‘No clocks?’
- ‘No. This way, in the casinos, one doesn’t know the time and keeps on playing and playing… all the famous singers come to sing here: Dean Martin, Sinatra… I begin to know them by their faces because the television here is on night and day.’
- ‘Night and day! But when do they sleep, these people? And what do you eat?’
- ‘There are all kinds of foods, even Chinese, if you want it. American food is lots of meat and ice-cream of all sorts. There is also a strange dish: peanut butter.’
- ‘Don’t they have cows, then?’
- ‘Here, no, I don’t think so. All around us is desert. A pink desert with a mountain in the distance. It is very beautiful when the sun sets…’
Johnny interrupts me:
- ‘Do you have any idea of the cost of a telephone call, Mimi?’
- ‘It’s expensive! So hang up, you can tell your mother all this later. Ask if everyone’s well and say goodbye.’
- ‘Yes, uncle Jo. Is everyone all right in Avignon?’
- ‘Except Grandmama. She’s not too well. Papa is worried about her. Matite is still sewing aprons. She would have preferred to sew dresses… Christiane is working hard at the hospital. She knows how to make poultices well. The other day Rémi fell over, the poor thing. If you had only seen how wonderfully she treated him: it was a marvel. Marie-France has toothache, Réjane… Roger… Guy…’
My first steps in Hollywood
The luxurious hotels in which we stay change ceaselessly, none resembling the other. The Beverly Hills Hotel in Los Angeles seems an oasis of calm after the Dunes of Las Vegas. But uncle Jo has his own ideas. He doesn’t rent rooms in this hotel, but in one of the bungalows instead – a house with several rooms, a salon, a kitchen and a bar, all in the midst of a jungle: palm trees, creepers, exotic plants, and when night falls, despite the little lights here and there under the trees, it all seems gigantic, unfamiliar, bizarre.
So bizarre, in fact, that all night I fear to close my eyes. There are noises, cries emitted by I don’t know what kind of beasts, and suddenly, something like a growl. A lion? I am sure that it is a lion! The next morning when, in the salon, the servants wheel in little breakfast-tables and uncle Jo calls me, I am still sitting on my bed, frozen with fear.
- ‘What’s happened?’
- ‘A lion…!’
I explain about the roar:
- ‘But you are imagining things! Ah! You really are the daughter of Tartarin de Tarascon! Your lion, here he is!’
Jan arrives, stretching himself.
- ‘It was just him snoring!’
In daylight, the ‘jungle’ is reassuring, full of flowers, a solitary place, perfect for a walk. But in Los Angeles, one doesn’t walk. One drives. Kilometres of beaches, kilometres of avenues, kilometres of parks surrounding the villas of superstars, and above it all ‘HOLLYWOOD’ on the largest sign in the world: they have written this magic word on the mountain!
My day stops being calm from the moment the great Joe Pasternak enters my humble life. ‘Great’, but not in height. Johnny warns me:
- ‘You are going to meet a very, very big producer.’
- ‘Hello, Monsieur Pasternak!’
- ‘Hello! Mireille… call me Joe.’
M. Pasternak is no longer very young. He has a high forehead, because he now has little hair, nearly transparent eyes that shine with mischief and a smile which lifts his cheekbones. Perhaps this is because he doesn’t film anything but musical comedies. Nothing else interests him. He speaks to us about them with great passion. It turns out he has seen me on ‘The Eddie Sullivan Show’, found me very photogenic and decided to film me.
- ‘But she doesn’t speak a word of English!’
- ‘She said ‘hello’ to me very nicely. She’ll learn it.’
He says that he has known many debutantes. He relates to Johnny how, twenty years ago, he helped Deanna Durbin, whom he had ‘stolen’ from Metro Goldwyn Meyer, become world-famous, and how, having returned to M.G.M., he had made the career of Kathryn Grayson…
- ‘In ‘Holiday in Mexico’ I reunited her with three other debutantes: Jane Powell, Judy Garland and Liz Taylor! Not bad, huh? And later I filmed her with Sinatra and Gene Kelly in ‘Anchors Aweigh’…’
- ‘Isn’t that where Kelly dances with Jerry, the cartoon mouse?’
- ‘Technically, it was a trick. Have you seen the film, Johnny? Then I gave Kathryn neither more nor less than Mario Lanza as a partner. I also arranged his debut on the screen.’
- ‘Ah! Lanza!’
- ‘Yes. But his personality… not as wonderful as his voice! During ‘The Great Caruso’ things… arranged themselves. But then! Happily, he had recorded the songs for ‘The Student Prince’ before I was obliged to dissolve his contract! And it was Edmund Purdom – a charming boy! - who had appeared to sing. So everything went very well. It was also me who made the debut of Carrol Baker in ‘Easy to Love’, with Esther Williams.’
All this went straight over the top of my head!
- ‘So, voilà, Johnny. With the little one I’ll do a remake of ‘A Star is Born’.’
- ‘But she has no experience…’
- ‘We’ll teach her to sing, to dance.’
- ‘But Judy Garland…’
- ‘That was twelve years ago, Johnny! It’ll take a year to prepare Mireille; another to finish the film. I assure you, it’s a great idea!’
We are in his office, and if I understand correctly, he has been here for twenty-four years, since well before I was born! He shows us several framed photographs: his stars… Eleanor Powell, Lena Horne, Lucille Ball, June Allyson, Gloria DeHaven, all of them beautiful, well dressed and made-up… could I also become like that? Who knows? Doris Day in a circus, filming ‘Jumbo’. And here, Ann-Margaret in ‘Made in Paris’…
- ‘M. Pasternak asks if you go to the cinema?’
- ‘Yes, I have seen Fernandel and the Pagnol films.’
It’s Joe’s turn to be a little embarrassed. He puts his arm gently around my shoulders. He can already see me as part of his ‘crew’. He proposes a tour of the studios the next day.
- ‘Are you happy, Johnny? I have two uncle Jos now!
- ‘That’s wonderful, Mireille. But don’t call him ‘uncle’. It might vex him, who knows!’
Los Angeles is the opposite of Las Vegas. There is the sea, superb beaches, a Chinese pagoda which is the cinema where all the premieres of new films made in Hollywood take place. And an incredible open-air theatre… the Hollywood Bowl (‘How many spectators, Johnny?’ – ‘I don’t know, a hundred thousand perhaps…’). Oh! la la! To sing here, one day…
The dream… the dream, I touch it when I touch one finger to the entrance to the city of M.G.M., a real city with a hospital, its own museum and, of course, studios. And in a studio, who is being filmed for Joe Pasternak? Elvis Presley! The Beatles and Elvis are the only ones I know thanks to the ‘Bowling’ in Avignon. If only Françoise Vidal and the others could see me now!
- ‘Elvis filmed ‘Girls Happy’ for me last year,’ says Joe, ‘and we are working this year on ‘California Holiday’.’
Elvis suddenly appears, in flesh and blood, as it’s breaktime. Very handsome, very cheerful, very ‘clear’ in spite of the sober dark hair. He is almost glowing. He is wearing black pants, a golden vest with fringes and a light-blue silk shirt. Joe explains that it is the costume of his character, a pop singer who participates in automobile races:
- ‘The film has everything that women like, even is it doesn’t always please the critics! But I always say that it isn’t they who pay for the tickets!’
Elvis is escorted by his own ‘uncle Jo’, Colonel Parker, who doesn’t leave him for a moment. It is the Colonel who decides on his contracts, his meetings, how he spends his free time.
Elvis doesn’t know Avignon. But Paris, yes. Ah! Paris…! I would love to speak with him, but there are two barriers, his language and my timidity. All the same, I dare to say to him:
- ‘I’m going to learn English very quickly, so that I can speak with you!’
Joe, charmed, translates. Evidently adding several things, as his sentence is four times longer than mine. What did he say?
-‘That he wants to do the remake of ‘A Star is Born’ with you. So why not with Presley as well. And Presley replied that you have a very pretty face…’
The director Norman Taurog joins us. (Johnny whispers to me that he has made films with Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin). He takes me by the chin:
-‘Nice face… El, ready?’
It’s over. With a wide smile, El hugs me, says ‘good luck’, I respond with: ‘Goude loque!’… and the photographer immortalises the moment.
Johnny receives Colonel Parker. He gets on well with this tall, dry, ramrod-straight man, who doesn’t let Elvis be approached by anyone. He highlights the privilege accorded, the exception made for me in allowing me to be photographed with Elvis. We dine together – alas, without Elvis! – and we speak of the million dollars that Elvis receives per film. And he makes two per year… speaking of money bores me, because if I know very well what I can buy with 4 dollars won at a slot machine (by the way, I have 12 dollars now – they had babies!), I have no idea what to do with one million dollars. What I do know is that I want to earn a lot of money to help those who have none, starting with my family… it’s already too late for Grandpapa… for the poor Charlot of my childhood… too late, too late. This is what makes me sad, sometimes. When I have time to think about it. Because Joe throws us into a hurricane. He invites us everywhere, beginning with the home his wife, Mme Pasternak, a pretty brunette, has made for them. Their two sons, even the smallest, speak a little French. The eldest wants to go to Paris… their secretary, who is also a professional tennis player, is of French origin; his name is Pierre Grelot. With his help I finally begin to understand what is happening around me. When I hear ‘Doris!’ or ‘Shirley’, he completes the sentence with ‘Day’ or ‘MacLaine’, although this doesn’t tell me much. I can’t even say who it is I am meeting with, because I have never seen them on the screen, and because everything happens so fast. At the first meeting, they say ‘hello, Mireille!’ in the friendliest manner possible. One gets the impression that one has always known them, and then hop! they’ve disappeared. Who knows whether I’ll see them again?
Joe doesn’t fail to insist that he adores the French. He has filmed Dalio, Louis Jourdan, Danièle Darrieux, Lila Kedrova… why not Mireille Ma-tiou?
That night, Johnny tells me:
-‘Do you understand how lucky you are, Mireille? You have to make sure you don’t miss your chance. There are flocks of debutantes and pretty girls here. You must learn English very soon.’
At another reception, one of Joe’s friends accosts us:
-‘I have a marvellous offer for you. A series of fifty episodes on TV. The story of a little orphan in Louisiana. She loses her parents in a car accident in 1938. She falls in love with a boy who is called up to serve in the army, they get engaged on the eve of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour. He dies in the bombing and…’
I am already crying. But won’t I get to sing? No. What interests him is my face.
On returning to the bungalow with Johnny and Jan, I say:
-‘But what I really love is singing!’
-‘Don’t worry, Mimi. We won’t hurry. We have plenty to choose from. But now we must pack.’
-‘We’re going back?’
-‘No, we’re leaving for Honolulu! You’re appearing on Merv Griffin’s show there, and you’re going to get a surprise…’
Honolulu is a surprise in itself. I had thought that it was an arm’s length away. But not only do we have to take the plane, we also fly for several hours. I have time to play a game of Patience with Jan. However, on arriving I find that it’s still America – limousines, hotels bordered by waving palm fronds, huge beaches, a TV station; but instead of Eddie Sullivan there is Merv Griffin, built on a more massive scale and wearing tennis shoes. I learn that with him tennis is hereditary. His father and his uncles were both champions of the racquet. He doesn’t speak to me about my face – this ‘nice face’ which I hear all the time – but of my voice. Perhaps because he started out as a singer with an orchestra? Merv knows everything: he plays the piano, sings, of course, acts in comedies, invents games. (He’s a veritable treasure-trove!) He remarks that I am a natural fighter, a player, because while awaiting my turn on the show, all alone, with my puzzle bought at the airport, I tried to roll the ‘eyes’ (little black balls) into the sockets of the animals of a small zoo. I could have gone on for hours because of my obstinacy.
The orchestra attacks ‘Mon credo’ with gusto. Is it because there is a holiday atmosphere here? I feel as though I have grown wings…
-‘What that good, uncle Jo?’
-‘Very good. I was wondering if I was right in including a little-known song in your repertoire, instead of a hit like ‘La Vie en rose’…’
-‘I would be glad for Paul Mauriat if his song was successful.’
-‘Ah! You see, you’re grown used to ‘Mon credo’!’
He mentioned a surprise. What is it? Is it a typically Hawaiian dinner with a ukulele for accompaniment? No. The surprise arrives the next day.
It is a very big surprise. It takes human form. Four cameramen of Raymond Marcillac’s team, filming ‘Les Coulisses de l’exploit!’. It’s going to be made on Hawaii. Uncle Jo has arranged everything, and so here we are at Sea Park Life. It is a superb oceanographic museum. The principal attraction is an immense pool with trained dolphins.
I follow the installation of the cameras with interest. The dolphins jump into the air like the goats back at home! A festive canoe sailed by a pretty Hawaiian girl decked with flowers approaches us.
-‘Here you are, Mireille, a canoe for you!’
-‘Of course you!’
-‘But you know very well that I can’t swim!’
-‘We’re not asking you to swim. You’re just going to have a peaceful sail, surrounded by the dolphins.’
-‘But they’re not at all peaceful! Look how they jump! The canoe will capsize!’
The technicians interrupt. But no, it won’t capsize at all. It has a flat bottom. And the water isn’t deep here at all.
-‘Oh dear! Even if my feet touch the bottom the water will still cover me completely!’
Uncle Jo is impatient. I’m wasting the time of a whole team brought here specially from Paris!
-‘But you know well that I’m afraid of water!’
Jan comes to the rescue. There are twenty people who are watching, ready to jump in the water if, by some accident or design, I end up in the water! Uncle Jo is getting angry. He uses a frightful threat: if I don’t obey, I’m returning not to Paris, but to Avignon.
Assisted by Jan, I risk getting into the canoe, letting out a cry at each slosh of the water. I fall into my seat, terrified.
-‘But listen, there-is-no-dan-ger!’ Jan cries to me.
-‘Be quiet, you fool! I’m not going to sing any more of your songs!’
That came out involuntarily. Well, too bad!
-‘You’re too tense, Mireille! You’re not in any danger!’ Yells uncle Jo, while the boat floats away, and I see a dolphin approaching.
-‘I beg of you, uncle Jo, I beg of you! I’ll even sing rock if you want me to!’
Paris. An apartment prettily arranged by Auntie. She has put flowers everywhere, a beautiful golden goose-feather eiderdown lies on my bed… my two little sisters, Matite and Christiane, have come to meet me. They now have the same hairstyle as I. We are almost the same height, which is very practical. We can share blouses, jumpers, T-shirts. The bags are unpacked. Here is everything that I have brought from New York, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Honolulu…
-‘Oh dear! But we can set up a shop with all that you have brought!’ Says Matite.
-‘I’m going to lend you two suitcases to carry all this. I now have several of them!’
I have thought of everyone. I hope that I haven’t forgotten anybody. A cowboy hat for Papa, I think it’ll suit him, and a scarf for the drug-store owner, because we kept on bothering her with our phone calls.
-‘It’s not a bother for her at all. It attracts customers! But… are you sure you didn’t spend too much?’
-‘I didn’t keep count. I did need to change clothes!’
-‘But you’re going to come down to Avignon soon?’
It hurts me, but it is necessary to tell them it’s not possible at the moment, that I’m returning to America in four weeks. They must explain all this to Mama. Uncle Jo is betting a lot on the ‘American card’, to use his expression. Therefore I must travel often. And because I know nothing, at the same time I must work on my English, my diction, my voice…
-‘But you don’t need to work on your voice!’
It’s perfectly normal that they don’t understand. Only three months ago I didn’t understand either. I tell them what I have learnt: the vocal cords are a muscle. It must be trained, strengthened, as a runner does with his legs, a pianist with his fingers. At the moment I only sing two songs, so it’s all right. But during the summer tour I must perform at least ten each night. ‘You must deal with it’, uncle Jo keeps on saying. He has grand projects, great hopes… I charge them to explain to Papa, as it is better told in person than via the telephone… (in fact, I now have my own telephone! Four, even, one in the kitchen, one in Auntie’s bedroom, one in mine and one in the dining room!). Proof that uncle Jo believes in me absolutely is that he’s going to abandon his other artists so that he only has to concern himself about me.
-‘He’s even leaving Johnny Halliday?’ Asks Matite.
-‘Yes. Even Johnny. Uncle Jo says that Johnny doesn’t need him anymore. Unlike me…’
Every day Nadine seeks me out to take photos, go to a radio station, meet reporters… that is how I meet Yves Salgues of ‘Jours de France’. I immediately feel great warmth toward him. He is a young man, very thin, with an accent which, although it isn’t my own, is still full of sunlight (he comes from Lot). In a very soft voice, he asks me questions about America and I speak to him of Disneyland, where I had a real holiday… where I wanted to try everything, trembling with fear in the haunted house, laughing with the pirates, gasping with amazement in the submarine ‘Nautilus’, being enchanted by Mickey and Pluto, whom I met in flesh and blood together, an arm’s length away from the castle of Sleeping Beauty…
-‘But listen, Mireille, you also met M. Pasternak in Hollywood!’
Nadine turns me back on track, and as Yves Salgues also knows M. Pasternak, the conversation flows.
My head fills the entire cover page, under the title ‘Mireille Mathieu… fame in three months’. I turn the pages to look at the photographs inside: me in Disneyland, in Avignon among my fans… uncle Jo takes the magazine away from me, we must go to rehearsal.
-‘Is the article good?’
-‘Very good,’ he responds. ‘Everything is here, your impressions, your plans. But we must hurry.’
Uncle Jo must have a pendulum clock in his head.
Barely out, my disc sells like hot cakes. It is no less popular than the Beatles’! When I say ‘my disc’, I really ought to say ‘the song ‘Mon credo’’. It is asked for always and everywhere.
-‘I did well to ‘torture’ you to tears!’ Says Johnny. ‘We’re moving on!’
Jacques Plante, author of the songs in the operetta ‘Monsieur Carnaval’, for which Aznavour wrote the music, brings us a slow waltz, of which he is this time both the writer and the composer. It’s called ‘Le Funambule’. I adore it! It is well balanced. It is full of tenderness:
Tout là-haut dans la nuit
Marche un funambule
En habit de clair de lune
Et de diamants.
Il s’avance en jonglant
Par-dessus la foule
Les gens retiennent leur souffle
Le cœur battant.
Il plane sur la fête.
Par-dessus les têtes...
There is a spoken part. Only five verses, but they must be said correctly, so as ‘not to throw the song to the wind’, as Johnny says. Therefore we go to see Robert Manuel, member of the Comédie-Française and a professor at the Conservatory. I know that the Comédie-Française is as important for drama as the Opera is for singing. Johnny tells me that M. Manuel has played beside Brel in ‘L’Homme de la Mancha’. And finally, he is a close friend of Maurice Chevalier. In fact it was Maurice who mentioned his name to us, saying that he learnt a lot from him… M. Manuel is a rotund, cheerful man with nice eyes who makes me laugh even when he raises his voice.
-‘She has good loaves!’ He declares. And, on seeing my eyes, wide with amazement: ‘Isn’t that what they say where you come from?’
-‘We say that someone has a nice bust.’
-‘A nice bust. And good loaves. I’m all ears, mademoiselle.’
I try my five verses:
Celui que j’aime est un poète.
Lui non plus n’a pas les pieds sur terre.
Lui aussi fait de la corde raide
Au-dessus du vide
Au-dessus du vide de mon cœur.
- ‘Oh, la la! The accent! You don’t come from the Pontoise, that’s for sure! Try again… what are you saying? It sounds as though you a have a mouth full of stew! Begin again.’
-‘She is dyslexic,’ Johnny explains.
-‘I confuse ‘b’s and ‘p’s…’
-‘I can hear that.’ (He is trying to contain his laughter). ‘You must talk for half an hour each day with a pencil held between your teeth… to learn to ar-ti-cu-late. You will repeat: ‘Petit Pot de Beurre, quand te Dépetit Pot de Beurreriseras-tu? Je me Dépetit Pot de Beurreriserai quand tous les Petits Pots de Beurre se Dépetit Pot de Beurreriseront’.’
I burst into laughter, my great ha! ha! ha! which so annoys Johnny.
-‘She has a powerful breath!’ He says. ‘She could have made a good soubrette! In the meantime, don’t think about the words, but about what they need to convey. Celui que j’aime est un poète… see him, picture your poet in your mind. Without ceasing to see him, inverse the words. Say: ‘Mon poète est celui que j’aime…’ or ‘j’aime celui qui est un poète…’. The sense. Not the words. Thus you will sound simple and true.’
That was my first lesson – and it wouldn’t be my last – with M. Manuel.
It was at the hairdresser’s that Jours de France again made its way into my hands. There, I had the leisure to read this headline:
‘She has conquered five million Americans with two cries straight from the heart: ‘L’Hymne à l’amour’ and ‘Mon credo’. In France, three months was enough for her to release her first disc, which plunged into oblivion eight years of tuneless noise and static.’ And the article: ‘In a century of 220-volt electric guitars, she belongs to the epoch of grand pianos. In an era when celebrities advertise their names for all they’re worth, she barely suspects the existence of Johnny, Claude, Sylvie or Dick.
‘Yet nevertheless, in the four months since we have begun talking of her, Mireille Mathieu has achieved in a quarter of a year what others – such as Petula Clark – have taken ten years to accomplish… the international recognition which came to her thanks to American television before she left the country… is a unique occurrence in the annals of performing art: she is the only singer whose debut has ended with a consecration… although she only knew three songs by heart. In 1966 this is more than enough to birth a legend. And Mireille Mathieu is surrounded by multiple myths and legends, some of which are favourable and some hostile.’
Hostile: the word hits me like a hammer.
‘What those in her profession call ‘the miracle of Mireille’, a handful of maligners twist into ‘the imposturing of Mathieu’, and explain the new turn her life has taken by a clever publicity campaign.’
Yves Salgues then comes to my defence, speaking of the miraculous voice of a young girl from Provençe who came from her people and appeared before the world with the sure and mysterious instinct of song… he gives yet another version of my life, of my voyage to America, of my plans for 1967… but I don’t pay it any more attention.
On returning home, I leaf through my big dictionary. I want to be sure of the terms…
‘Maligner: person who seeks to explain and detract from someone's success.’
‘Imposturing: the trickery of a person who wants to appear other than what he is.’
So that is how things stand. Auntie notices at once that I’m not my usual self. But I say nothing. Poor Auntie! She’s barely arrived in Paris and I’m already weighing her down with worries, drawing her into being complicit in my shame. No one in our family has ever been an impostor… but once I’m in my room, I can’t control myself and call uncle Jo.
-‘Did I interrupt you?’
-‘No. I’m with Nicole and Vincence. They send you their love… Vincence wants to know when we’ll amuse her again by doing dictation, she likes it. I told her that you have other things to do right now. What’s happened, my dear Mimi?’
And the barrier breaks. ‘The imposturings of Mathieu’! That is why he took the magazine from me. But I read it at the hairdresser’s! Why do I have enemies? What are my parents going to say? He calms me. He’s going to see me tomorrow morning and explain everything. And meanwhile, he asks me to pass the phone to Auntie, who speaks to him from the kitchen. A moment later, she joins me, with her habitual sweet smile. The magazine? Of course she’s read it. It’s of no importance! She dries my tears, cajoles me, prepares me an infusion.
That night I sleep next to her. She has long since asked for two beds to be placed in her room, saying that this way she’ll always be able to accommodate any of the Mathieu sisters when they come to visit me. But she must have realised that of all the Mathieu girls, the one needing this refuge most often, the one who will have these long talks with her before falling asleep in the midst of a sentence, will be me.
The next morning, uncle Jo comes in time for breakfast. Auntie prepares soft-boiled eggs and toast.
-‘Eat first,’ she says. ‘You can have your serious talk later.’
But seriously speaking, I am very upset, and I say so. ‘Imposturing’ is not to be tolerated.
-‘But perhaps it’s not you they are attacking, Mimi. Perhaps it’s me…’
-‘Why should it be you?’
-‘But that’s they way it is, Mimi, and not only in show-biz. It’s the same everywhere. As soon as something is going right for someone, you will find people who would prefer that it didn’t! It’s like that the world over.’
-‘Not here. Not at home.’
Uncle Jo sighs. Auntie refills his cup of coffee.
-‘You can always return if you want, Mimi…’
I know well – he knows well – that I would never go back. I don’t have the right to do so. Everyone believes in me now, the whole family. I prayed, and my prayers were heard. I am upon a set path. As Auntie told me last night: ‘Don’t take any notice of the stumbling blocks! Go your own way and look only before you!’
Uncle Jo continues: if he had no confidence in me, would he have abandoned all his other affairs? His entire network is now mobilized just for me, six people are working for the best opportunities to become available to me… I shouldn’t think of anything but singing, and singing the best I can. Everything else has been looked after.
-‘And I thought that I was now finished with the torments of artistes! Happily you haven’t yet woken me up at four in the morning! I’ve had that experience before! It’s always either deep depression or loud partying! I said to myself: here is a sweet, gentle young girl who will listen to me and for whom I can construct a good career. And it turns out that I found myself a horse butterfly!’
-‘What on earth is a horse butterfly?’
-‘Ah! You’re smiling! It’s a funny sort of animal. It’s you: strong as a horse and fragile as a butterfly. The moment something’s not quite right you begin to lose your colours…’
Some days later, we go to have lunch in Marnes with Maurice Chevalier. Johnny tells him of my soul-searching. And Maurice tells me of his own during his debuts in Parisiana:
-‘I frequented a café next door, and one day when I arrived in a dashing costume – I was twenty-one and it had been seven years since I started working and earning enough to support myself – an ageing comedian said to me sharply: ‘Well, so the rising star of the century deigns to mingle with the little fry?’ I responded that he was surely drunk. This enraged him. He insulted me: ‘Star of my behind, we’ll settle this outside!’ He was set on fighting it out, whereas I had no desire to: firstly because I was a pacifist, and secondly because I was somewhat scared. The matron Pagès, who ran the café, said to me: ‘You’re in the right, Maurice! Or else you’d have to fight all the ham actors here. They’re all jealous of you!’ I went white as a sheet and wasn’t myself for a long time. I couldn’t sleep. The next day I signed up for lessons in English boxing. It was very popular in those days. And a month later, I continued my conversation with that comedian where we left off. It was he who ran away!’
-‘But, Maurice, I can’t take boxing lessons!’
We laugh, of course. And he adds:
-‘What would really be disquieting, you see, is if the public liked you less. And surely then the little world of show-biz would like you more!’
In Avignon there are also rumours:
-‘She must be earning stacks of money, your daughter!’
Johnny therefore sends a letter to Papa:
‘29 March 1966
‘After three months of effective work, it seems to me useful to assess our progress and to inform you of the results before together we come to a conclusion about the future position.
‘We have worked tirelessly, and the outcomes, although modest, remain encouraging. Moreover, I have nothing but praise for Mireille’s goodwill; but the fact is that she has infinitely more to learn than I supposed during our first contacts. To tell the truth, we will have to start from scratch and channel her understandable though misplaced enthusiasm to oblige her to acquire the basic skills needed for a lasting success. Unfortunately, Mireille is not well prepared for the work that awaits her, and this means, to the detriment of chances for immediate earnings, a big effort on her part, as on mine.
‘For your information, I confirm that I have engaged an English tutor, a singing tutor, an orchestral conductor, a press, radio and television secretary, and that the future will see a need for teachers of deportment, dance and diction. All these require considerable investments, the amplitude of which will become clear to you when you know that the journey to the United States has cost more than a hundred and twenty thousand franks.
‘Taking into account our current and everyday expenses in Paris, we are still far from a positive balance sheet, as, not including the expected revenues from her newly-released disc, Mireille has thus far only earned the following:
‘4 days on tour with Hugues Aufray . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 800 franks
‘Olympia, 24 days at 200 franks per day . . . . . . . . . . 4800 franks
‘Galas in Belgium from 25 February to 2 March,
300 franks per day . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 1800 franks
‘Total . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 7400 franks
‘Nevertheless you should not be discouraged by the magnitude of our task; I spoke to you of the need for two years of hard work before it becomes possible to collect the fruit of our efforts, and this delay still seems necessary to me. I have complete confidence in Mireille’s talent and willpower, and I know that I can be assured of your understanding and support.
‘With great respect, yours
Still, the brutal discovery of my ‘maligners’ broke something in me… part of my childhood, perhaps? But I have no time to concentrate on ‘soul-searching’. Life is busy, full to the brim. From ten till two o’clock I rehearse my songs with dear Henri Byrs. Then a super-light lunch and singing lessons with Jean Lumière. This is the best time of the day.
He lives near the hall Pleyel, in a small apartment stuffed with souvenirs. I find him very good-looking, although he tells me that he is over seventy years old! He has a very fine face and sweet eyes…
-‘You have a wonderful surname, monsieur Lumière!’
-‘I’m not at all related to the inventor of cinematography. My true name is Anezin…’
He has an accent! He’s from Aix-en-Provence! A countryman! His father, like mine, adored singing opera – in between two bottles (he was a wine seller!)
-‘You know, Mama adores you. She knows ‘Un amour comme le nôtre’ and ‘La Petite Eglise’ off by heart. She sings it often:
Je sais une église au fond d’un hameau
Dont le fin clocher se mire dans l’eau…’
- ‘You have a true voice and a beautiful timbre,’ he says to me. ‘But what I want to work on with you is your breathing. If you had a strong breath, Mireille, you could do anything you wished with your voice. In my time, we had no microphones. The voice had to carry to the back of the room on its own power. You see, I don’t have a loud voice… unlike you. If I had to count solely on its volume, it would only reach the tenth row.’
-‘So what did you do?’
-‘I was very lucky. I was making my debut in a cinema in Marseilles when a grand dame of song discovered me: Esther Lekain. She was a singer-declaimer, as they used to say then. She made her songs carry. She lived them like an actress. She taught me to do this too. And it was she who baptised me Lumière… when I went up to Paris I entered the Conservatoire to learn diction, articulation, to speak well… I even successfully performed in comedies and tragedies!’
-‘But then why didn’t you become a stage actor?’
-‘But I preferred romances. I knew how to express my feelings, but how to impart them to the entire hall… that was a different story. That’s how I met another lady, an opera singer, who taught me breathing: Ninon Vallin. I owe everything to these women. And now, we must get to work. You have a strong voice, but that doesn’t mean that you have a strong breath. They have nothing to do with each other. Lie down on the floor.’
-‘On the floor, on your back. I’ll lie next to you and you put your hand on my stomach...’
This was amazing. If Mama could see me! Yet I wasn’t worried, because Jan had such a kind look… and because his pianist was seated at the piano. M. Lumière began to sing, and I felt at once where his breath came from… this made me laugh. My ha! ha! which made people turn around and stare…
-‘Laugh! Laugh, my little Mireille, it’ll do you good! But your laugh comes badly, it comes from the back of your throat and you expel it through the nose! You choke on it! If your breath came from your stomach, you could laugh for an hour without tiring! We’ll begin again…’
The English class is much less fun. The teacher is younger than M. Lumière, although quite respectable. I call him Waterloo, which becomes a bad omen. It means victory for him and defeat for me. One hundred and twenty minutes of English per day, that is what Johnny wished. To begin with, Waterloo thought that sixty would suffice, whereas I gave up at fifteen. I had thought that to learn English meant that I would speak it at once, even if not at all correctly… yet Waterloo begins explaining English grammar to me, even though I barely know the French!
And a pile of events distracts me. For example, I am invited to the headquarters of the Federation of Football to draw lots for the teams that will participate in the Cup semi-finals. That I found very interesting! My arrival caused a great disruption in the Rue de Londres. The switchboard stopped working because all the young female operators were in the process of demanding my autograph… the president, Chiarisoli, is very impressive behind his glasses, but I don’t fail to impress him in turn by saying that I know Angers is fourth in the championship. I adore football. It makes me yell. It releases stress. If I had a choice between a concert programme or a good match, I wouldn’t hesitate: I’d choose the ball!
Six days later is another event: we hurry to Brest, and there, in the harbour, stands the cruiser ‘Richelieu’.
It almost looks as though it’s not waiting for anyone but me! And it’s true! All this has been thought up by Jean Bardin for his programme ‘Les Quatre Cents Coups’. We are therefore received in maritime surroundings. Among uniforms, medals and pompoms. But everything is spoilt when they speak of leaving in a helicopter… I whisper to uncle Jo:
-‘Can’t we leave on foot?’
He signs to me that no.
-‘I’m going to be sick!’
He signs to me that no.
-‘I won’t be able to sing.’
He signs to me that yes.
When I think of my girlfriends in Avignon, who all dreamed of going to Toulon to see the marines… it seems as though there are two thousand of them here around me!
-‘Look, mademoiselle,’ the copilot says to me, ‘the view…!’
But I am in the midst of praying to the Virgin, and one can’t look about at views while one prays. Johnny comments on the harbour – it’s splendid, on the crowd below – it’s enormous, on the cruiser – it’s gigantic, and finally he says, upon descending:
-‘Here we are, it’s all over. Take a deep breath, Mimi!’
The pilot asks my impressions, and all I can find to say is: ‘Too bad the helicopter doesn’t have wings…’. Once my foot is on hard earth again – or so to speak, as in fact we are still on the deck – I imagine that I am in one of the musical comedies of which M. Pasternak told me in Hollywood: the two thousand marines are all here, artistically arranged around four large cannons. The little Jean Bardin, with whom I feel very comfortable because he is nearly the same height as I, puts me among them, and the choir begins:
C’est nous les gars de la marine
Du plus petit jusqu’au plus grand
Du moussaillon au commandant!
Afterwards… it’s pure pleasure. It doesn’t matter whether I sing ‘L’Hymne à l’amour’ or ‘Mon credo’, everything brings joy. To sing in fresh air, as though to fill all of Brest… and afterwards, the berets in the air, the never-ending autographs, the tour of the ship from the hold to the deck, which doesn’t stop astounding you with ladders, bridges and red pompoms! Yes, it was well worth the mind-numbing fear during those three minutes in the helicopter.
Maurice Chevalier calls me the next day. He has seen me on ‘Quatre Cents Coups’. He’s making his own programme… and he asks me if I would like to be his partner… Albert Raisner wants me to represent France at the French-German Festival, along with Jacqueline François, Jacqueline Boyer and Henri Salvador… and Johnny and I depart for New York and Los Angeles in a great hurry.
There I meet the third giant of American television: after Eddie Sullivan and Merv Griffin, Johnny Carson invites me to appear on his popular ‘Tonight Show’. I have made little progress in English since my first journey three months ago. I can still only use six words: ‘Hello! Yes! No! I love you!’ But I only need to give everyone a big smile and it all goes well. Uncle Jo grumbles a bit. I did honestly try to learn some phrases, all made up by Waterloo, but I found it so difficult to pronounce them that I gave up on the way here. Nevertheless…
-‘You have a good memory. You have a good ear.’
-‘Yes. But I stumble when I have to learn English, not when I have to learn songs…’
I indeed manage to learn songs without any difficulty. They flow about in my head, like the blood in my veins. In performing my ‘Funambule’, it is as if I also am joyously balancing against the sky:
Il danse sur le monde
Je ne suis qu’une ombre
Il n’est qu’un éclat!
Pierre Delanoë, Bécaud’s songwriter, wrote for me:
Qu’elle est belle, qu’elle est belle
Dans sa robe de mariée.
J’aurais tant voulu porter
I find it so easy to sing this with feeling, from the heart, that a journalist who understands French asks me: ‘When are you going to marry?’
Truly, reporters are the same all over the world. Mama, whom I call at the drugstore, is beside herself with worry:
- ‘Do you know what they shoved under my nose at the baker’s? A newspaper which describes in detail how ‘the new Piaf is experiencing her first pangs of love’…’
- ‘What pangs of love?’
- ‘I’m asking you. Are you having pangs of love?’
- ‘But Mama, I’d have told you!’
- ‘I’m not so sure of that… you can be secretive sometimes.’
- ‘What do they say?’
- ‘’That, so as not to get in the way of your ascension to glory…’ – I’m reading it out, by the way – ‘…he whom you have decided to marry has resolved, with pain in his soul, to retire from your life…’’
I imagine how the drugstore customers shift from foot to foot before the packets of pasta, awaiting the rest of the story.
- ‘So whom have you decided to marry?’
- ‘No one, Mama!’
- ‘They say that it’s someone from Avignon!’
- ‘Well then, you know him!’
- ‘That’s exactly what worries me. I don’t know anyone like that here! Especially now that you’re constantly going to America…! You father is also shaken.’
- ‘Listen, Mama, tell Papa that I haven’t even had time to learn to speak without an accent yet! I’m rushed off my feet here…’
- ‘And why lose your accent? In any case, it disappears slower than one’s virtue! And that is precisely why I don’t want you to be rushed off your feet!’
- ‘Mama, if I swear to you by Saint Rita that everything is well, will you believe me?’
- ‘Of course.’
- ‘Well then, I swear.’
- ‘All right. What’s the weather like in New York?’
- ‘It’s windy.’
- ‘Don’t tell me that they have the mistral?’
- ‘Of a sort. It’s very draughty between the skyscrapers. I’m a bit scared of taking the plane to Los Angeles tomorrow. I would like the wind to fall, rather than the plane, you see!’ (I cross myself and Mama does the same on the other end of the line.)
- ‘Don’t they have trains?’
- ‘But we don’t have time to take them. Goodbye… I’ll call you from Hollywood. Kiss everyone around you from me…’
In Beverly Hills, Joe Pasternak is brimming with ideas. He has a series planned for me, ‘Beauty Contest’… Pierre Grelot explains: it’s a story at once touching and funny: ‘A large family… following you life closely, Mimi. A beauty contest instead of a song contest…’
- ‘But I’ll sing anyway?’
One thing worries me. A beauty contest… at them girls generally appear in swimming costumes… now, I hate putting on bathing suits. Even at the pool in Avignon, with Françoise, I was shy, and she teased me a little because I didn’t like to show myself. I thought I had too big a chest for that…
- ‘But in Hollywood they can fix everything!’ Pierre says laughingly. ‘We see girls arrive and go with superb hair and gleaming teeth, such as they have never had! Whereas your hair and teeth are impeccable. And a bust… that can be taken care of, it is easiest to deal with, in fact! The best surgeons work in Hollywood…’
It is as though he has put a serpent on my plate. I lose my appetite. Happily, a huge distraction arrives with Danny Kaye. Once again, a gentleman whom I do not know. But apparently he has seen Johnny Carson’s program, and he manages 'The Eddie Sullivan Show’. He says to me, drolly mixing up French and English and gesturing in such a manner that I can’t help but laugh:
- ‘Miss Ma-tiou, je vous veux dans mon show, le mien, compris? C’est O.K.?’
I notice that he has very fine, expressive hands. Pierre tells me that this helps him a lot in his hilarious comedy, in which he plays an orchestral conductor. In real life he is also a musician and a fan of the greatest, notably Karajan (this tells me nothing, but I don’t bat an eyelid and remember the name), he has watched them so often that he can imitate them perfectly, which puts him in great demand in all countries. He often accepts with the condition that the profits go to poor children. I ask him if he had also been poor? Not rich, but not poor either, he replies, as he was very gifted… at five years of age he had already performed in a variety show, as a watermelon pip!
- ‘A pip?’
I laugh as he continues speaking to Joe with his hands, while Johnny starts a conversation with ‘his Stark’, M. Schwimmer. Pierre goes on with his explanation: everything began a dozen years ago; on his way to make a film in Asia, Danny found himself on a plane with someone from UNICEF, a branch of the United Nations set up for the aid of children, and asked if he could accompany him on an inspection. The war was still on… they visited the front line. He was deeply upset by all that he saw, especially the poor starving toddlers who had lost everything, including their families… he told us that ‘nothing afterwards could be the way it used to be and that the rest of his life wouldn’t be enough to help these twenty-five million children…’ I ask him if it’s possible to earn so much money in Hollywood so as to be able to help twenty-five million children? Pierre smiles. Even all the movies Danny has made aren’t enough. But he is like a stubborn sailor: he holds galas, which bring in a lot of money, he inspires others to do as he does, he is making a film from which all the profits will go to UNICEF, he gives himself to his cause body and soul, he works tirelessly.
I look at this redheaded giant with his eyes like billiard balls who makes the guests split their sides laughing.
- ‘But in what language is he speaking?’
- ‘He’s imagining a dialogue between an Arab and a Japanese, but in fact he doesn’t speak either language! He is very good at imitating accents… it’s one of his biggest tricks. Ask him if he speaks French.’
I ask him daringly:
- ‘Vous parlez le français, monsieur Kaye?’
- ‘Malheureusement,‘ he responds with a Parisian accent, ‘je ne le parle pas du tout!’
And following this, he says a string of phrases which make no sense, in which I recognise some words, such as ‘formidable’, ‘oh! la la’, ‘it’s unbelievable!’, ‘are you well?’, finishing with ‘my’ accent, which he has acquired immediately:
- ‘I speak the French of the South, mademoiselle!’
It’s pure genius.
When we return to the Beverly Hills Hotel, Johnny tells me that it’s all arranged, I’m going to star in a show, televised in December, and tomorrow Mr. Schwimmer is going to organise a showing of ‘Joyeux Phénomène’, which is already twenty years old and which made his career…
- ‘If I stayed in Hollywood… I would go to the cinema every day! I’m sure that it would help me to learn English faster than Waterloo!’
- ‘That could happen, you know. Joe has firmly decided to film you.’
- ‘But I don’t want to wear a bathing suit!’
- ‘You’ll do what they say… but we’re still got far to go, so don’t worry!’
It’s a lucky Friday the thirteenth. The living room is suddenly flooded with roses, sent by a multimillionaire called Stanley Marcus, according to Johnny.
- ‘Imagine that the rich of the United States communicate along a chain. He wants you to sing in Dallas. It’s his home city. He suggests five recitals at the Opera…’
- ‘At the Opera! Papa will burst with pride!’
- ‘Don’t get carried away. You only have ten songs, and in addition… they are not all good.’
I am disappointed. Johnny tells me that not everything is lost. Another formula will be found… Sunday brings a shower of even more roses than the first. To thank me and to ask me to go to a great French occasion in October: all Marcus’ stores will be catching up to Paris with French products. So I will sing in department stores? It is far from the Opera! Johnny again reassures me. That is not what is being offered. An ultra-chic gala will be held in the middle of the two weeks’ sale, and my name will be at the top of the bills.
Wednesday is a notable day: Joe, obstinate, makes me do a screen test at the M.G.M. studios. A taste of the life of a star: early rise, the studio of the make-up artist. The cheeks must be made more hollow, the eyebrow lifted, the shape of the chin altered. Dear Lord… I have the impression that everything is to be changed utterly! He speaks a little French, he is very gentle, he says that it’s a pleasure, that I am very pretty, but… that a wider eye, a higher cheekbone will make me look even better, etc. I would like very much to see what he is doing, but I’m not allowed to move.
After that comes the hairstyle. The chief stylist decides to keep the one I have. All the better. I am taken to the filming area. I find that it doesn’t differ all that much from the ones used by television stations. Only that it’s larger and that there are many people around the camera. It’s turned on. Johnny translates for me:
- ‘Smile. You see someone… you say hello. You are happy to see this someone… now the opposite. They bore you to tears… another scene. You see Danny Kaye! He makes you laugh… stop.’
- ‘It’s not going well?’
- ‘It’s very good. But they want to change your hairstyle.’
Five times the stylist gives my hair a different shape. It doesn’t bore me at all. I even find it amusing. Joe embraces me effusively.
- ‘Wonderful!’ He says.
And I understand perfectly what it means. He adds ‘my little star!’ and I understand that too. It’s happened! I can speak English!
- ‘In my dreams!’ Says Johnny. ‘But what’s certain is that you are devilishly photogenic.’
My four musketeers
When we return to Paris, there is ‘the Mathieu Affair’. I am not conscious of it because it has been decided that I am to read no more magazines.
- ‘Except those with good reviews…’ I said.
- ‘Neither the good nor the bad,’ decrees uncle Jo. ‘The good are very bad indeed: you will think yourself successful. Well, in our profession – and remember this when I am no longer here – one is neither big nor successful, never. You always have something to improve on.’
Therefore I knew nothing. But, again at the hairdresser’s… a lady says to me:
- ‘Oh! Mireille Mathieu! He wasn’t very nice to you, Léo Ferré, in ‘La Nouveau Candide’!’
Nadine looks at her furiously, but the damage is done. Léo Ferré… the one who sings ‘Paris-Canaille’, which I adore… why?
The lady continues:
- ‘Oh! Notice that it’s Barclay whom he attacks first of all!’
Eddie, such a kind man… but why? I don’t know anything else about it at the moment, but… by which chance has this magazine come near me? Perhaps a musician, a stage manager, left it lying about during break? However it happened, it is here. Do I take it… or do I leave it… the temptation is too great… I quietly rip out the page, to read in secret that evening in my room:
‘I heard Mireille Mathieu, this young girl who is growing on the grave of Piaf, sing.’ I don’t find that mean. Flowers grow on graves too.
‘This girl is a commercial idea, developed to appear on television. Barclay said to me the other day: ‘I am unable to leave Mireille Mathieu. Someone else will take her if I do.’ I still don’t find anything wrong with that. Of course discs must be sold, or else why make them? Eddie did well to say that to him.
‘…I can’t pass judgement on the courage of those who have the same profession as I, even if I have done it for twenty years and they for fifteen days.’ I understand, but wasn’t there a time when he also had only been in his position for fifteen days?
‘… After they have been sold, even if by a forced wind, the artist can buy accessories and cars with the money from this wind, and people won’t say anything to that.’ Why does he say a forced wind? No one is ever forced to buy a disc. It is the consumer who decides whether they like it or not. Yes, it’s true that I said I wanted to buy a car for Papa. Because when I see him struggle to pull his cart loaded with stones… perhaps he, Léo, doesn’t know how heavy it can be… in all seasons… and then, Papa will be able to take the children on an outing on Sunday, further than just to the Doms cliff… and Mama will also be able to use it, as she is starting to have trouble carrying Béatrice, who is beginning to put on the weight appropriate for her two years…
‘… it’s the price of their enslavement. Slavery exists still, and it is worse than before.’ Oh! I don’t believe that. In my ‘Book of History’ I had seen how slaves were treated! It was dreadful. ‘…Sometimes the slave would revolt, occasionally even shooting their master. Today it’s all done by contract. It is forbidden to shoot Barclay. He is kind, he has a large cigar, a beautiful moustache, and then he invites you to dinner all the time. He is adorable, M. Barclay, but he is still a slavedealer.’ Dictionary: ‘one who sells Negroes.’ Oh yes! Like the film which was shown on television the other day. But it is the lady at the hairdresser’s who is mean: she didn’t understand that he was playing with words! ‘I also have good relations with slavedealers. I even sign contracts, and once they are signed, I perform, I fulfil them honestly. If I decide to do it, I do it. Only I can defend myself, I am a partly emancipated slave.’
That’s all. And this article made so much noise? Perhaps I don’t understand very well. But what I do feel well is that Léo Ferré can’t be very happy… it’s doubtlessly why he writes such beautiful songs. I scrunch up the page into a little ball. And I throw it out the window. It will greatly amuse the concierge’s kitten.
Some days later Nadine arrives with a wrapped-up ‘Télé 7 Jours’. She is shining:
- ‘Look at the title, Mimi: ‘The Friends of Mireille Mathieu come to her defence’. It’s superb! Read! Maurice Chevalier… Louis Féraud, Eddie Barclay, Raoul Colombe!’
My four musketeers! It touches me deeply that, in the article, M. Colombe remembers my efforts at the age of fifteen years to win first prize in the ‘Critérium’! It’s true, by God! Mama thought me asleep when I, eyes tightly shut, was praying in my heart.
- ‘Auntie! Auntie! Come quick!’
Aunt Irène comes out of the kitchen, drying her hands (she is making a cake).
- ‘Listen, Auntie! ‘I, who know Mireille very well, can affirm that the detractors, thankfully not numerous, who say that she is copying Piaf, and try to belittle her extraordinary ascension by accrediting it to a publicity campaign, are grossly mistaken. She is born to be an artist.’ That’s by M. Colombe! Louis Féraud describes me as a tremendous fighter. ‘It is very difficult to make her see reason after she has decided on something. She refuses to wear 85% of all fashionable clothes. She holds on to her modest black dress, and I was hard put to persuade her to go onstage all in red…’
- ‘In other words,’ Auntie intercedes calmly, ‘he has perceived how stubborn you are. He doesn’t say that you are dreadfully untidy?’
- ‘No! He says that my personality reveals itself when I am surrounded by people I trust, that I sing during fittings and sing still as I leave! It’s true that I’ve made some progress since the day, five months ago now, when I didn’t dare be seen by him in a slip!’
- ‘And Maurice?’
Auntie has a real passion for Chevalier.
- ‘He repeats what he said when we last met, that when he was making his debut, he was accused of imitating Dranem, in the same way that Piaf was accused of copying Fréhel: ‘it takes some time to disentangle oneself from the admirations of one’s youth, and gain one’s own proper personality. Mireille Mathieu has succeeded in doing this too quickly in the opinion of the envious and the jealous, but she continues her work. Her golden voice is puissant and also weightless, made for the light. The only challenge facing her now is not to let her malwishers slow her down. And then you will see a dazzling career unfold.’
Auntie gets up, under the pretext that the dough will rise too high if not attended to, but I know that it is to hide her emotion.
Finally, my ‘slave trader’, Eddie Barclay, speaks of ‘a vocal phenomenon’: ‘The disc which has marked her debut includes a song, ‘Mon credo’, which would have suited Piaf perfectly. Three hundred thousand copies of it have already been sold… what characterises Mireille Mathieu best? It’s her will. She knows where she’s going and where she wants to go.’
Yes, but… at the moment I only want to go, with all my heart, to Avignon. Ah! If only I could go to the hospital and embrace Grandmama!
- ‘She’s not very strong,’ Mama has just told me on the phone. ‘She would really like to see you!’
It’s not possible. There are ten songs to rehearse for my first big tour – sixty concerts! I explained it to Mama, who sighed.
- ‘But in six days I’m returning to ‘Palmarès des chansons’ and you are all going to be in the hall. Grandmama can’t come? Not at all?’
- ‘Not at all, Mimi. She’s not terribly sturdy. She seems almost like a dandelion seed.’
- ‘But all the others will be there? Promise?’
All the others, the entire family, for whom I want to make things easier. And after them, for those I can… I think often of poor Charlot, whom we did our best to help while we ourselves had little. What I could have done for him now… and it’s too late. In Paris, when I see a tramp asleep near the mouth of a metro, I am shaken. I want to know how and why he ended up that way. I am always afraid that he is dead.
No, I cannot see Grandmama. All I can do is pray for her. After the rehearsal, one of uncle Jo’s assistants is charged with the task of taking me to Neuilly in his white Volkswagen. I ask him to take me to Sacré-Cœur. He hesitates a little. He thinks that the little provincial from Avignon wants to go sight-seeing. That is doubtful! But should I explain it to him? I am also shy when it comes to my faith. With a smile, which I have noticed no Parisian is able to withstand, I insist.
- ‘Well then, five minutes,’ he says.
But it’s late afternoon, and there are many traffic jams. We finally arrive at the top of the hill. This is he first time I have entered Sacré-Cœur. I have wanted to visit it for a long time because it was the first church I saw when I came to Paris… I am stunned by the mosaics, the marble busts and he statues! ‘My’ Jeanne d’Arc, astride on a horse! ‘My’ Saint Louis, also on a horse! Without doubt I have lost a lot of time, because the moment I begin to pray my chauffeur comes to fetch me.
- ‘I haven’t finished,’ I say to him. ‘Kiss the feet of the Virgin with me.’
- ‘But I’ve never done it before!’
- ‘It’s never too late’.
The poor man, doubtlessly hoping to finish as quickly as possible, does this with all possible aplomb. And then hears me say:
- ‘I have also vowed to make a tour of the frescoes on the walls.’
It’s a pilgrimage which I have undertaken for Grandmama’s recovery. Next to each station, he shows me the time:
- ‘You know that M. Stark doesn’t like lateness!’
- ‘I know it. But God should always be the first to be served.’
- ‘The church is closing!’
And at the same moment, the voice of the beadle:
- ‘But no, no… pray, take your time, Mlle Mathieu! God is never in a hurry!’ And he adds in a deep whisper: ‘I saw you on television!’
But the Lord is not with us upon our exit: it’s pouring buckets, one of those forceful and stubborn spring rains. The traffic jams have doubled, and my chauffeur is more and more irritated. He hits the bumper of the car preceding ours… on arriving in Neuilly, he becomes somewhat redder:
- ‘M. Stark’s car!’
And truly: it stands at the edge of the sidewalk on which he deposits me. He drives away quickly in his Volkswagen.
In the apartment, Johnny is even redder than the driver, in his case because of anger.
- ‘Look! See what state you’ve driven your aunt into! We thought you were dead. In an accident! I’ve already called the police! You should have been here at six o’clock! It’s nine in the evening! Do you want to tell me what you’ve been doing?
- ‘I was at the Sacré-Cœur.’
He doesn’t believe me. I can see well – and I can hear, too! – that he doesn’t believe me. And then Auntie says in a soft voice:
- ‘It’s surely true, Johnny. Mireille has never deceived us. She must also have prayed for you!’
He raises his eyes to the sky and remains speechless.
I feel sorry for those who have never known their grandparents. I have often heard talk of the rift between generations. This hasn’t been the case with the Mathieus, but it is true that parents often have too many worries which can make them weary, irritable, inattentive, indifferent to their children. Grandparents often have more time for kindness, games, cuddles, smiles, tender looks. Even at home, where we were the only treasures, Grandmama was the one to give us all this. The thought that she might disappear from my life was intolerable. I ask Johnny if I could make a short trip there and back by plane to embrace her, and he says no. This I find very hard to bear. I detested him at that moment. It wasn’t until much later that I understood. Grandmama was no longer the one I knew, gay, sharp-witted, always taking us to the country to collect plants and herbs. The Grandmama who knew legends from far-off places, which we children repeated to each other, mouth pressed to ear, late in the evening… who also knew the sense hidden in dreams. How many times, after she went to live with her second husband, did she suddenly appear in our house, having scuffed her small feet – the same size as mine – on the hard road, to say:
- ‘I dreamed last night that…’
And it was always a fabulous tale, which left us little ones sitting with open mouths. There was talk of fiery waterfalls, of huge rocks on the very tops of tall mountains… of unicorns with their foreheads capped by horns, whorled like barley-sugar sweets…
- ‘Something will surely happen to you! What are you going to do today?’ Or else: ‘Be careful! I saw the biggest waves on the sea today, so big the birds couldn’t fly over them!’
In the mornings, when she still lived with us, she would always interrogate me:
- ‘Well, what did you see last night?’
- ‘Very well, but what colour?’
- ‘Very green? Well, that’s good.’
- ‘The water you saw, was it troubled?’
- ‘A little bit. Not very. But it was funny. More like oil!’
- ‘Heavy, then? Ah! I don’t like that too much!’
It’s without doubt because of her that I cultivated my dreams, that I always saw in them a small house on the edge of a blue sea… and that often I liked falling asleep because I knew that I would find my little house again.
But this was not any more Grandmama as I knew her. The illness had marked, diminished, withered her. Johnny had spoken of it with Aunt Irène. Her appearance must not be allowed to upset me deeply, at the moment when I needed all my strength for the summer tour, and then for Olympia, where I would be at the top of the bills. So he used a subterfuge. The tour included many cities in the south-west. He arranged a ‘very useful’ interview after the dress rehearsal in Bayonne. And, as if the idea had only just then occurred to him:
- ‘We won’t be far from Lourdes. If you want, we can make a brief stop there…’
He continued talking about other things, but this ruse had worked. I thought of nothing else from then on but this true pilgrimage, which would allow me to pray for Grandmama’s recovery. The interview in Bayonne has left no imprint on my memory. But I know that we arrived in Lourdes on Friday evening at six o’clock. I saw nothing of the city, thinking only of my aim. The heavily ill weren’t there, the healing springs and pools are closed at this time. Under a black veil, meditatively, I place a candle in the grotto and go to Vespers at the church of the Rosaire. I buy medallions for all my brothers and sisters, parents, Auntie Irène. And one for uncle Jo, who I find is less of an unbeliever than I thought. At ten o’clock we are in a train bound for Paris. I am calm. I have done what was necessary.
- ‘This is my present for Mother’s Day… to take Marcelle and all the children, even little Béatrice, to Paris for your ‘Palmarès’! I’ve worked Sundays and public holidays to pay for the boys’ grey jumpers and the girls’ white coats. They’re beautiful, eh?’
- ‘Yes, Papa, very beautiful!’
He is happy, he shines. I love to see him like this. Uncle Jo has reserved for my fourteen favourite fans three compartments in first class and places in the restaurant wagon. They were disappointed not to see me during the day, but I have to rehearse. So I only saw them, at the same time as the TV viewers, on the small control screen, when the camera was turned on them. I prodded Jacqueline Duforest:
- ‘Look! That’s Matite over there! And that’s Sophie! The twins! Look at the twins!’
Theatre 102 was full, the room and wings thronged with the sixty-seven attending Parisian children and the seventy choir singers from Créteil, footballers from Strasbourg, stuntmen, one of whom has a swollen eye from a swordblow…
- ‘What horror!’ Mama says to me, when I tell her of the preparations for the concert, ‘you could have been the one faced with all that! But it’s truly dangerous, this television!’
A camera had collapsed on the ground, a Cadillac which had been brought onstage fell through the floor and a cowboy girl from ‘La Vallée des Peaux-Rouges’ was bruised all over from a fall. As Guy Lux said:
- ‘It’s that kind of day!’
Right now we are having a splendid mothers’ party at home.
- ‘And Grandmama?’
- ‘She has come out of hospital.’
I let out a cry of joy.
- ‘Oh! Thank you, dear Lord!’
- ‘She absolutely insists on seeing you. So we brought her to live with us at Croix-des-Oiseaux. Aunt Juliette is staying with her overnight. They saw you on TV.’
- ‘Oh! I am so happy! If they let her leave the hospital it means that she’s much better, doesn’t it?’
- ‘Of course… of course…’
- ‘I sang ‘Jezebel’ for her!’
She has passed down her love of Piaf to me. Without her I perhaps wouldn’t have become the Mireille Mathieu that I am. She was the first to light the spark of the love of God in me. Her eyes when she listened to a disc of Piaf’s…
- ‘Mimi! Show us your wardrobe!’
Everyone marvels at my clothes.
- ‘You love shoes so much!’ Enthuses Matite. ‘You have at least four pairs!’
I open the cabinets and Auntie shows them her kitchen appliances.
- ‘But with all this newfangled equipment,’ Mama exclaims, ‘you won’t have anything to do, Irène, you must always have clean hands!’
Uncle Jo has poured the champagne. We drink to Grandmama’s health, to my success.
- ‘You’ll soon bring us a fiancé from Paris,’ says Mama with a wink.
- ‘You know… I don’t have much time for that!’
- ‘If one is found, Irène will probably become engaged faster than her!’
Everyone bursts out laughing. I want to keep Matite and Christiane with me so that we can again laugh crazily at night as we used to in our childhood.
- ‘Out of the question!’ Aunt Irène cuts off decisively. ‘You have gym and English lessons tomorrow. And you’re rehearsing tomorrow afternoon. You must go to bed early and sleep well. Besides, Johnny has foreseen everything. You have six rooms booked for you in the ‘Hôtel Saint-Pétersbourg’…’
- ‘Yes, yes, that’s perfect,’ says Mama. ‘We’ve organised it: the two youngest will sleep in our room, Matite and Christiane have one to themselves, Marie-France and Réjane have one too, Sophie will share Jean-Pierre’s; the twins are together; Roger and Rémi will share the sixth room, everything is in order, and it’s much more grand than at Croix-des-Oiseaux!’
I am disappointed. I would have liked very much to spend some time with them all again. But reason must prevail.
- ‘I have a very big bed for me alone. You’ve seen it, girls, it has a golden-yellow eiderdown and embroidered drapes…’
- ‘But I saw that you have kept your old night-gown,’ Matite says. ‘Why? It’s beginning to wear out. It has little colour left.’
- ‘I know. But I feel comfortable in it.’
- ‘Johnny doesn’t want you to take it with you on the tour. Nadine has bought you one made from a gorgeous rose satin,’ says Auntie. ‘It’s the one that I’m putting in your suitcase.’
My younger sisters want to see this rose satin night-gown. It’s true, it is very pretty.
- ‘It’s the night-gown of a true star!’ Says Matite. ‘Don’t you like it?’
- ‘Yes, yes… but how to tell you… in the other one I feel more at home…’
Réjane, who has been counting the dresses in my wardrobe, cries:
- ‘Twelve! She has twelve of them!’
- ‘But you’re living in a fairytale, my dear Mimi!’ Mama says. ‘You understand that, I hope?’
- ‘Oh yes! You’re all to share it with me. I’m going to buy you a big house… as soon as I can!’
Papa takes me in his arms. He can’t speak. Mama says:
- ‘Roger! Don’t cry! It’s not the time for it. The little one has to go to bed!’
Alas! The next day it is anxiety that we all share. A telegram has arrived: ‘Grandmama urgently hospitalized. In grave condition.’ The entire family, except me, has taken the first train back. I can’t return to Avignon. The tour begins in two weeks. Uncle Jo says that I am not ready. It’s true. But despite myself, my thoughts turn to Grandmama.
- ‘My poor girl… my poor girl,’ says Jean Lumière to me during our lesson. ‘I know it’s hard. You feel all tense inside…’
- ‘Yes, monsieur…’
- ‘You must withstand this test. If you fail and if your grandmother learns of it, it will make her all the more ill.’
- ‘Help me…’
- ‘I can do nothing. I can’t do anything except tell you that the only person who can help you is yourself. You must succeed on your tour. It is very important at the beginning of a career. People think that you are a straw fire – quick to flare up and just as quick to die. They must be shown that you are made of good wood.’
- ‘I would like to… but how?’
I feel distraught. My fairytale is turning into a nightmare. I am no longer Cinderella going to the ball, but Tom Thumb, lost in a great black forest.
- ‘Lie on the ground. The earth is good for you especially, Mireille. She has already given you much. Confide in her. You are tired, I know. Relax. Breathe slowly, without effort. Calm yourself. Think of your grandmother, who wants you to succeed. Think of her smile…’
- ‘I know… but in thinking of her… I forget the texts of my songs…’
- ‘They will return. Don’t worry about it. They are a part of your being. They will come back to you…’
And in this way, by the force of his patience, Jean Lumière gently gives me the lesson that will help me all my life.
- ‘Don’t shut yourself in with your grief. But don’t forget about it either. Those who will be in the hall to listen to you also have troubles, concerns; perhaps they are also in mourning. When you sing of your grief they will feel that you are close to them. Give them your joy, but also give them your pain.’
I feel harrowed by the thought of having to do vocal exercises. But he tells me that they don’t work in a choked throat. We will do them tomorrow. And in a voice that lulls me, he tells me to breathe, breathe, breathe…
- ‘Stable condition… stable condition…’, that is what Mama always tells me on the phone. ‘And you, my darling?’
- ‘You’re not going to believe it… I have received a beautiful card, like the ones on which they print wedding invitations, you know, but with the crown of Monaco at the top. It’s an invitation from the Princess Grace…’
Princess Grace… I feel that the name alone lights Mama up like the Madonna. I remember that when she was married, I was about ten years old, and Aunt Irène had brought home magazines with photos of the royal marriage. We spent a whole evening looking at them. She looked superb in her embroidered veil. I even played at ‘the marriage of the princess’ with my brothers and sisters. Roger, who was then only two years old, had played the role of Oliver the dog, with whom Grace had arrived in Monaco. He was in all the photos! And now I would see the princess up close…
- ‘Let us hope that you won’t be seasick,’ worries Mama.
For it is the celebration of the centenary of the city of Monte Carlo, and it will take place on the new liner ‘Renaissance’ which will link Monaco to the Isle of Elba.
As usual, uncle Jo resolves all the problems:
- ‘One: you will take pills. Two: when one has something to do, one doesn’t get seasick. Three: you will sing ‘Le Funambule’; if you pitch about, they will think that you are trying to express the feelings of the tightrope walker. Four: you will need a white dress. Nadine, make an appointment with Féraud. Five: tell me, how are you going to greet the princess?’
When he asks me questions, I know that it’s always to catch me out! I try to make a guess.
- ‘I thank her for inviting me to her boat.’
- ‘No. It’s not her boat.’
- ‘I say to her: Good day, Princess!’
- ‘Madame Princess?’
- ‘Madame… uh… Your Highness?’
- ‘No. You keep quiet. You say nothing. You listen when she speaks to you, if she speaks to you. You don’t attempt to shake her hand. You wait until she gives you her own hand… if she does! And you curtsey to her. You have to take lessons in curtsying.’
- ‘But I know how to already!’
He has grabbed his camera. He is going to repeat the scene in Geneva. But this time he will receive a surprise. I am familiar with curtsys! We dipped and bent into them when my girlfriends and I played Cinderella… so! I execute one, sure of myself. Only my skirt is too short and rides up just above my thighs. But in a long skirt it will be perfect.
- ‘Isn’t it good, Johnny?’
- ‘There is only one unbiased judge: this!’
He taps his camera and gives it to Nadine. To tell Bruno to busy himself developing it at once.
Bruno is a Jack of all trades when it comes to anything to do with technology. As an excellent sound technician, he has now received a permanent position with us from uncle Jo. In step with all the new discoveries in his field, of Italian origin, not very tall, always smiling, he became for me – me, with my mania of giving nicknames – ‘Piccolo’ (bambino, little one). Nadine and Yvonne, the secretary from Avenue Wagram, begin to call him that too, and ‘Piccolo!’ occasionally even escapes from the mouth of uncle Jo. The next day, Piccolo brings the film. We have a cinema seance in the office. The curtains are closed. The film projected. Catastrophe dawns.
- ‘How do you find it? Nadine? Piccolo?’
- ‘Perhaps a little awkward…’ she says.
- ‘…cute,’ he says.
- ‘And you, Mireille, how do you find yourself?’
- ‘Not very good…’
- ‘I hope so! Look: your bottom is uplifted, your legs are apart, your little finger is sticking out ridiculously and your smile is fixed upon your face… Nadine, find me Jacques Chazot.’
Jacques Chazot: I know of him. He is a TV star, and I often see his image in magazines. I am a little frightened because I know that he is one of the most sarcastic people in all of Paris and that he is very witty. He will find me extremely stupid…
- ‘But no,’ says Johnny. ‘He ridicules Holy Marys and scarlet women. But you are a Virgin Mary! So everything will be all right. And in any case, we’re not talking about your personal qualities, we’re talking about your walk!’
It turns out that his first word is accompanied by a wide smile: ‘Ah! Bravo! You’re on time!’
He is pretending to believe that this happens very rarely in show-biz. The meeting takes place in Clichy Square’s Wacker Studios, where dancers rent rehearsal rooms. Doors slam in corridors, allowing little girl-dancers, who resemble those in the painting by Degas – lesson remembered! – which I saw on my first visit to Johnny’s house, to make their escape. But these have hair stuck to their foreheads with sweat, fatigue showing on their faces. On passing a class in one of the rooms, I see that the girls and boys are dressed in woollen leggings and big jumpers, with scarves draped about their hips, although the early June sun gently caresses us. They are warming up their muscles, in the same way that I am learning to warm up my voice. An authoritative voice chants: ‘And one, and two, and three, and four… start again!’
Start again. Uncle Jo’s favourite phrase during recording sessions. Start again… start again… it is also the phrase which will often be used by M. Chazot. He has made me put on an old skirt to serve as an evening gown.
- ‘Before your curtsy, you must come closer to the princess. Walk… ah no! Not like that. You’re not doing your military service!’
Frightened, I discover that my belief that I had known how to walk from the age of fifteen months was an illusion… I don’t know much at all, not even this!
- ‘Relax, relax,’ he says. (He shakes my arms.) ‘Untense yourself.’ (He presses lightly on my shoulders.) Be supple here too… hold yourself freely! Don’t stiffen up… don’t bow your head. Don’t use your arms for balance. Let them fall down the length of the body naturally.’
But my ‘natural’ is to be a ‘good little soldier’ – as I’ve often been told! It’s going to be necessary for me to carry phone books on my head every morning, learning to straighten out the neck, and to walk on tiptoe to flex the feet, as well as the knees… the first lesson is over and I haven’t yet learnt how to curtsy, I haven’t yet even learnt how to walk! It will take ten lessons for me to plunge down smoothly, instead of folding up like a nutcracker. We try again… and again… and I begin to adore Jacques Chazot. He is as funny during breaks as he is demanding during lessons! He has the gift of storytelling, which I admire, as I myself don’t possess it. But I can listen to stories hundreds of times, and laugh at every retelling! The age of certain actresses, especially, is an inexhaustible subject:
- ‘She is at least sixty years old!’
- ‘But no. At most fifty. That is, before the birth of Jesus Christ.’
Their coquettishness, too:
- ‘Oh, yes, we are just like weather vanes. We only stop twirling and spinning when we have rusted thoroughly!’
And their snobbery:
- ‘Oh! What a beautiful mink coat you’re wearing!’ Says one.’
- ‘‘It’s very practical,’ says the other. ‘You should buy yourself one, you who has always had the figure of an ace of spades. Under it, it doesn’t matter which shabby dress you put on. You will invariably look chic!’’
I don’t know whether it’s because I always confuse my right with my left, or whether it is because I am still dyslexic at times, but in my mind this becomes: ‘She is at least sixty years old when we have rusted thoroughly, and with the ace of spades you will always look chic!’ Which doesn’t make any sense at all!
- ‘Hello, Mama? I’m in Monaco. If only you could see how beautiful it is! There are garlands of lights, banners, it is as if the city stands on water, and it shines on everything around it. It resembles a piece of jewellery. You know: a large diamond brooch and… can you hear the noise of the fireworks? They illuminate the entire port.’
- ‘So you have sung on the boat.’
- ‘Yes! It’s much smaller, but much prettier, than the ‘Richelieu’!’
- ‘But you won’t sail on it?’
- ‘No. The ball is taking place on the quay at the moment. I’ve never seen more beautiful dresses, Mama. It’s unbelievable that such things actually exist. There are ladies who are wearing diadems worthy of queens.’
- ‘Are they queens?’
- ‘I don’t know. Perhaps… they look as though they are.’
- ‘Have you seen the Princess Grace?’
- ‘Yes. Before the performance, Rainier and Grace came into the little salon where the artists were, with champagne and everything necessary to go with it. But I can’t drink anything before singing, except Auntie’s lime infusion. I had my thermos standing in a corner. The Princess had flowers, and some jewellery too, in her hair. She is luminous! M. Chazot will be happy: I made my curtsy while looking at her, not at my feet.’
- ‘Did she speak to you?’
- ‘She told me that they liked me very much, at the palace! They both thanked us, and I think it’s much nicer to do it before the performance than after. There isn’t as much tension!’
- ‘Wait… I’ll pass the phone to your father.’
- ‘Hello, Mimi? Did you see Maria Callas?’
- ‘No, Papa. I’ve heard here that the Onassis and the Rainiers have fallen out with each other.’
Papa’s voice sounds disappointed:
- ‘Ah! It would have been the pride of my life to have known that my little girl had sung before Callas!’
- ‘They wouldn’t have pleased her, my little tunes… perhaps.’
- ‘But of course!’ He protests. ‘She’s a lady who knows what a real voice is. As I do, as does anyone who knows opera. I’m not saying that you’re Callas. But a smile from her, that would have been worth the compliments of the entire world!’
- ‘And Grandmama?’
- ‘She’s stable…’ (His voice becomes sombre…) ‘She still speaks to us of you all the time. She wants to know what your dress looked like. But Mama hasn’t seen it, your concert dress. I hope someone took photos?’
- ‘Yes, Papa… it’s terrible to be so close and yet… we’re going back tomorrow as early as possible, because we have rehearsals with the musicians. I’ll manage… but it’s difficult, to perform ten songs one right after the other! During the tour, when we’re close to Lyons, I will try to come and visit…’
We leave with five musicians, including dear Francis Lai. The opening night occurs in Geneva in a skating rink which seats six thousand spectators and allows another twelve hundred people to watch, standing or sitting on folding chairs. I am aware of something new: an atmosphere of competition, a sportive ambience.
- ‘We had to turn people away,’ says the director.
I think: ‘They had to turn people away because of Fernand Raynaud,’ because he tops the bill for the second half. Me, I am performing in the first, with my ten songs, including the one that was written for me by Michel Legrand: ‘Veux-tu qu’on s’aime.’
- ‘Don’t fool yourself,’ Fernand says to me. ‘It’s you they’ve come to see, you. You are right behind Halliday in terms of highest disc sales, him with a single song, you with two!’
It’s true that as soon as I announce ‘Qu’elle est belle’ and ‘Mon credo’, the two songs in question, the hall explodes.
Fernand Raynaud likes me very much. I often see him standing between the curtains side-stage. He listens to me sing… and he only returns to his dressing room during the entr’acte. This entr’acte… it’s his ongoing nightmare. During a summer tour, concerts are held in casinos, in garden theatres, in the open air, and the interval triggers a merry mood. There are vendors of beer, of lemonade, lucky dip bags, nougat, balloons… when Fernand comes onstage, there is still the thud of empty bottles being thrown in the bins, the rustle of bonbon wrappers, children’s cries. One evening, he simply can’t stand it anymore and leaves, gesticulating angrily. The next day, before the organiser has time to announce the interval, he leaps onstage and begins his programme. The vendors are flabbergasted. They crowd in the wings, furious. They surround uncle Jo, demanding that he stop Fernand Raynaud!
- ‘Stop Fernand when he is onstage?’ He says to them, keeping his calm, very like a cowboy among Indians. ‘It would amount to trying to stop the Paris–Vintimille express by waving a hand like a hitchhiker!’
- ‘Yes, but what about us, these are our earnings! We’re losing a whole night of takings!’
Johnny asks what they estimate their losses to be and says:
- ‘Come. I will settle with you.’
They are thus suddenly quieted and have to follow him in silence. Every evening from then on, Johnny forestalls things by paying the petty salesmen back the loss they would have suffered. On the third evening, Fernand, waiting to come onstage with his wife Renée, who supports him in the famous sketch, ‘22 in Asnières’, says:
- ‘They told me that the little merchants would make trouble if I suppressed the interval, but as you can see, everything has gone very well!’
In her sweet voice, she explains the situation to him. Fernand’s blue eyes widen in amazement:
- ‘But Johnny never said anything to me! Well… he’s a real gentleman!’
I am not a little proud of my uncle Jo. It’s true that he is very good at smoothing things over. And it’s true that Fernand explodes from time to time. When, for example, they (he and his wife) are invited to dinner by a prefect after a gala, and the prefect begins criticising Jean Nohain. To Fernand, Jay is sacred. He was the one who discovered him, and he believes, as do we, that ‘Thirty-six Sparks’ is a fantastic program which amuses the whole of France except Madame the prefect. When she continues to insist obstinately, he rises, calls her a ‘great idiot’ and continues on in the same fashion, as he is a good improviser. As it is impossible to stop him on the stage, so it is impossible to stop the momentum of Fernand Raynaud off it. The quiet Renée, who has made them into a perfect couple for more than ten years, knows that it’s useless. The entire dining room is stupefied. They both get up from the table and the prefect threatens:
- ‘You’ll never set foot here again!’
- ‘You were a little bit too fierce, as usual…’ Johnny says the next morning.
- ‘It was she who was too fierce. I will never permit anyone to touch a single hair on Jay’s head, even when he has lost them all!’ (The funniest thing is that less than a year afterwards, the same city called Fernand Raynaud and asked him to perform for them: the prefect had retired!)
Fernand is even more superstitious than I, which I thought impossible. He never says that things are going well for fear that they go badly. Therefore his favourite expression is ‘it’s pottering along’!
We all leave in a caravan: there is Johnny’s car, driven by Victor, our chauffeur, an ex-TV cameraman whom uncle Jo had hired to work for him, and who transports the two of us and Aunt Irène; the musicians’ two cars, Piccolo’s van with sound and lighting equipment, and Fernand in his large car, which he drives faster than anyone else in our entourage, but which doesn’t necessarily mean he arrives before us, as he likes to stop often, having friends in all corners of France.
I love the atmosphere of a tour, the road, the journey, the people one meets, the unforeseen events, as well as the rigour and equilibrium needed when every evening there are meetings with the public, which cannot be evaded. I don’t pine for either the rue de Chézy, nor for Paris. I didn’t expect it, but… I discover in myself the soul of a wandering acrobat! (A true wandering acrobat wouldn’t have as much luggage, however…)
In every city, there are meetings with reporters, with record dealers, and this is not exactly what I enjoy or want. My timidity returns. I want to be elsewhere. Aunt Irène prepares me painstakingly for these meetings. My Southern hair is strong, capable of withstanding the harsh effects of wind and sun, but it becomes greasy very quickly. Therefore, to make it look superb, and still as natural as possible, she shampoos my hair each day with a very gentle product, made for babies’ hair. To roll it into curlers, let it dry, don the performance dress, prepare the one for the post-performance reception with celebrities and nobility, prepare yet another, simpler one for interviews, tidy the things in my dressing-room, pack them away after the performance, all this is a load of work to which the catering to my flights of fancy (as Johnny calls it) must be added. Which is what makes us arrive very early at the theatre, however small or dingy: I rehearse with the musicians, I test the mikes and lighting with Piccolo… and I see nothing of the city.
- ‘Of course, you have seen our cathedral (or our museum, or our panorama)?’ They say to me at dinner.
After a negative response, they look disappointed. I promise to return… and the next day we are back on the road. Then the most difficult thing is to get enough of the sleep about which Johnny cares so much. But I nod off with equal ease, whether in the back of the car or in the dressing room.
- ‘It’s God’s blessing, to be able to fall asleep thus, no matter where…’ says Aunt Irène.
But this pleasant balance of things shatters suddenly in Gérardmer.
I am in my dressing room. The curtain will go up in two hours. I’ve done my vocals, seen the positioning of the lights, tested the microphones. Aunt Irène enters… and from her extremely pale face, I guess:
- ‘She’s very ill…?’
Silence. Irène enfolds me tightly in her arms.
- ‘It’s over.’
I can’t even let out a cry, when I hurt. It all stays inside and crushes my heart. I want to flee, to fly on wings of lightning to Avignon, come to her side, press my face against hers, perhaps once more see her eyes, touch the hands that so often cooled my forehead when I had a fever. If I had been there, I would have been able to hug her gently, helped her to die, perhaps murmured into her ear one of the songs she so loved, said to her: ‘I love you, I love you, we’ll meet again, I’ll rejoin you one day, God unites those who love each other… you know well, songs are always right…’. But it’s Aunt Irène who hugs me, who murmurs words of consolation, who wipes my face with cool water…
- ‘I want to speak to them… is there a telephone here? When did she die?’
- ‘…Yesterday morning at five o’clock.’
- ‘And you didn’t tell me until this evening!’
- ‘But we didn’t know, Mireille. We were only informed just now. She passed away in hospital, you know. That is where they’ll hold the wake. They couldn’t ask you to come in time. And then, they know that you sing every night…’
Johnny appears at the door to the dressing room. Auntie tells him that I want to make a call to Avignon at once. He takes me to the head office. But naturally, the number of the drug store doesn’t respond. It’s too late at night.
- ‘We’ll call them tomorrow. You can’t do anything else right now.’
- ‘I want to speak to Papa. He must hurt so much… she was his mother!’
- ‘Mimi, the audience is already beginning to arrive… some come from here, some from very far off… do you feel brave enough to sing?’
- ‘I must, isn’t that right?’
- ‘That’s what the job demands… but if you can’t… we’ll make an announcement.’
- ‘And then?’
- ‘And then, I’ll ask Francis Lai and the musicians to fill the gap in the programme that would have been your allocated time. Fernand hasn’t yet arrived.’
- ‘No. I’ll go get ready.’
I ask him to spread the word: no one should speak to me, so that I don’t break down. In the mirror I use when applying make-up, I notice my red and swollen eyes. My throat is dry, as if all the tears had drained from my body. I don’t know whether my voice will emerge.
- ‘I’ve put a lot of honey in your infusion…’ Auntie says to me.
It’s funny how, during times of great grief, all movement becomes automatic. One seems to split in two. She makes me drink, does my hair while I rub on foundation, and when I look at myself in the mirror, I see someone else’s face… brusquely, when I don’t expect it at all, comes Grandmama’s voice. I hear her as though she were there: ‘Not too much blush, Mireille, or you’ll look like a street woman!’ The tears return. A flood of them which washes my entire face. I have to start everything over again. I dry my eyes. Start again. This little key phrase which pursues me. Start again. Always start again.
- ‘You’re sure that you can do it?’ Asks Auntie.
I reapply the foundation. And much less blush. I’m sure that’s how Grandmama would have preferred it…
I don’t know how I sing, whether it’s well, whether it’s badly. I know that ‘Mon credo’ emerges from my breast like a knife being pulled out. I hear ‘bravos’, bravos much stronger than usual. Johnny spirits me into the car and we fly to the hotel.
- ‘It’s odd, Johnny. The audience, I had the impression they knew… when I went onstage, the applause was very strong, but no one spoke. Usually they whisper comments to each other; I caught some of them occasionally - sometimes it’s about my dress, my hairstyle, other times just to point out: there she is…’
- ‘It’s possible,’ says Johnny. ‘There are a few lines in the papers…’
- ‘Ah! I understand! That’s why Aunt Irène…’
- ‘It were better that you learnt from us rather than from strangers. In any case, it can’t change anything. Tomorrow, we’ll be at Voulte-sur-Saône. The distance is not as great. After the performance, we’ll set out, and you’ll spend the morning in Avignon. But we can’t stay for the funeral at two o’clock. We must leave well before then: you’re singing in Saint-Etienne in the evening…’
I tell him that I don’t want to see any reporters. I don’t want to speak, at all. But onstage, yes, I will continue. And it’s good that the public knows… I have given them my life, it is normal that they should give me their compassion.
At Voulte-sur-Saône three thousand people have gathered under a marquee. Fernand Raynaud comes in softly while I am in the caravan which serves me as a dressing-room. He hands me a piece of paper folded in half and goes out. I unfold it and read:
‘The worst griefs soften eventually, little by little. Happily, you have the courage to go on, dear Mireille, to prove that you are the greatest of all the singers in France. The whole world admires you all the more this evening.’ And the signature: ‘Fernand Raynaud’… the greatest, I, who feel so miserable, so insignificant.
I arrive in time to see her face once again. How small and fragile she seems, lying in the coffin. It is closed after I arrive. Without meaning to, Mama says the most cruel thing of all to me:
- ‘Until the last moment she called for you, your poor Grandmama. You came too late. But I know, you had no other choice.’
Papa, who I thought was so strong, cries like a lost little boy. My brothers and sisters, even the youngest, who knew her less well than I, take part in the mourning. Johnny removes me from the general embracing, showered with endless tears, once the neighbours, the friends, perhaps even the curious, begin to arrive. It seems to me that there are many people whom I do not know. I huddle up against Irène, and we retake the road to Saint-Etienne.
I will always remember the stage behind the red curtain and the microphone which, loudly, like a parrot, repeated the soft words I confided to it. And there will always be the bravos, which roll over me from head to toe and don’t allow me to so much as move. Fernand, as usual, stands in the wings, looking at me as though to say: ‘I am here. We love you!’ And I feel strong. I have held out. I am holding out. And I will hold out. As if I still had my hand in Grandmama’s firm grip, when we went across the fields collecting herbs and she stopped me from falling.
Millionaire at twenty years
I don’t read the morning press. According to Johnny, it is flattering. But because it is very difficult to resist reading a magazine which has you on its cover, I learn in ‘Jours de France’ that, ‘not classified in any category (belonging neither to the old wave nor the new), she already appears as the number one singer, and owes her success to her talent rather than to any school of music. The power of Mireille lies in her being a classical singer with a modern phrasing…’ I think Papa would have liked that expression.
- ‘Do you think you have the ability,’ asks Johnny, ‘to sing ‘La Marseillaise’ at Deauville for the 14th of July?’
- ‘Really? They asked me to do it? But it’s a great honour!’
- ‘You bet! You’ll follow in the footsteps of Chevalier, Trenet, Gréco, Bécaud…’
Like everybody, or almost everybody, I don’t know much of the ‘Marseillaise’ beyond the first couplet. The rest of the tour progresses to the sound of the national hymn which I don’t tire of ‘chewing’ over and over so as to have the words committed to heart:
Que veut cette horde d’esclaves
De traîtres, de rois conjurés?
Pour qui ces ignobles entraves
Ces fers dès longtemps préparés?
It’s worse than ‘petit pot de beurre’… I can’t manage it. The words morph into ‘traites de rois, ces fers si’ or ‘ces fers pour’.
- ‘But uncle Jo, there are no longer either slaves or kings these days, can’t the verse be omitted?’
- ‘Do you agree to sing ‘La Marseillaise’ or do you not? You astonish me, Mireille, you with a father so patriotic that he takes off his hat when he hears the‘Marseillaise’ on the radio!’
- ‘Yes, but I’m talking about the words, not the tune. They’re the difficult part!’
- ‘I’m sure that your father knows them.’
- ‘What Papa sings is the ‘Marseillaise’ of the prisoners:
Dans le cul, dans le cul (Up the arse, up the arse
Ils auront la victoire. Is where they’ll have their victory.
Ils ont perdu They have lost
Toute espérance de gloire. All hope of glory.
Ils sont foutus They are done for
Et le monde en allégresse And the world rejoicing
Répète avec joie sans cesse In unceasing joy is voicing
Ils l’ont dans l’cul They’ll have it up the arse
Dans l’cul Up the arse.)
Uncle Jo is astonished. No, of course swearing isn’t encouraged in the Mathieu household. But the words are vivid, they say what they want to say plainly.
- ‘It’s true that Roger likes to sing that!’ Says Auntie, coming to my aid.
Uncle Jo admits that it’s easier to remember than ‘tremblez, tyrans! Et vous perfides, l’opprobe de tous les partis…’, and here’s another bit, ‘l’opprobe de tous les partis’, which I can’t even begin to pronounce.
- ‘Bite a pencil between your teeth and articulate it carefully, like Robert Manuel taught you. ‘L’opprobe’ and not ‘l’eau propre’!’
In the end, we decide to keep the ‘cohorts étrangères’ and ‘l’opprobe’ if I can learn to articulate them (‘start again… start again!’), but we cut the ‘horde d’esclaves’ and the verse about the ‘complices de Bouillé’, since the poor man is long forgotten. And yet, I know who he is! I looked him up in the dictionary which I always take with me everywhere, as part of my luggage. It was he who tried to help Louis XVI flee to Germany. I still prefer ‘Le Chant du départ’, though. I believe it’s better, as a song about the Revolution. I really hope to have the occasion to sing it one day.
- ‘Perhaps,’ says Johnny. ‘But learn the ‘Marseillaise’. Believe me: it will serve you better in the future!’
In any case, it is worth it to live in Deauville’s Hotel Normandy, in the suite used by King Farouk!
I will blow out my twenty candles far from my family.
We’re in Hossegor. Last year, when I was at the holiday camp here, Mama had sent me a cake which she had baked. I shared it with ‘my’ children. It seems so long ago to me now… this year, it is I who will give a present to my parents: the car of their dreams, which will spare them much walking about and much fatigue. I can permit myself this, as Johnny has told me:
- ‘There you go, Mireille. You’re a millionaire!’
It’s a magic word, even for those who, like me, can’t count. The car was delivered to Avignon. Papa doesn’t return it. He can finally take advantage of his driving license, which up to now had never been of any use to him…
It’s holiday time, and Johnny has assembled together those of my friends who were in the vicinity: there is Roger Hanin, Guy Lux, Jean Poiret and Françoise Dorin, Michel Creton and Maurice Biraud… there are flowers, presents - a gold compact powder, a plush sheep - and much laughter. Johnny says that they should have given me a life jacket, as I always refuse to go swimming or to venture anywhere near water…! His own present is sumptuous:
- ‘I know that you remain faithful to your ‘almost gold’ medallion, and that you don’t like jewellery. But this isn’t a piece of jewellery: it’s a work tool! You have a tendency to always be late.’
It’s a gold watch. Auntie marvels at it. She fastens it on my wrist before we go back down to rejoin our guests. I don’t yet know that I will grow to like watches… so much that I will acquire a collection!
The tour of France continues. In Bordeaux, I receive a strange phone call:
- ‘Mademoiselle Mathieu, would you agree to pose nude?’
- ‘No. Why do you ask?’
- ‘It’s very serious. ‘The painters witnessing our times’ are having an exhibition in Galliera, in January. The sculptor Mougin has decided on you as a model.’
- ‘I am very honoured. But nude, no. Not even in a bathing suit.’
- ‘Ah? Well. He’ll be very disappointed. There is nothing dishonourable in it! In the case of a negative reply from you, he has told me that he still won’t give up: tant pis. He’ll just use his imagination!’
‘Paris-Match’ places me on its cover with the title: ‘Holiday France acclaims her husky voice. Is it the end of the ‘yeah, yeah, yeah’ era?’ And, inside, the bill of the summer tour bears the heading: ‘At the box office of the beach, Mireille again emerges victorious.’
‘She has been singing for six months. And she doesn’t have another free date until February 1967, singing at Olympia in mid-September, and appearing on television in the USA in October and December. The object of much curiosity as well as adulation, Mireille has reached the hearts of all audiences. She has attracted a full hall at the casino in Deauville, she will return to the Canet-Plage casino, where on the 18th of July they had to deny people entry; she filled the casino at Touquet, and they turned away 500 people at the casino in Royan, where she will sing again on August 31st; the open-air theatre in Pharo, Marseilles, regretted being unable to book her for a second engagement; two thousand five hundred people had come there to hear her last Tuesday, and no fewer would have come again.
‘Mireille is patiently awaited by the casinos in Divonne, the garden theatre in Nice, the casino in Dieppe, the garden theatre at Clermont-Ferrand which has a seating capacity of six to seven thousand people; she sang at the Mauberge fair in the morning and evening, before twelve to fifteen thousand people. Her fee is 6000 francs.’
Then the article goes on to talk about last summer’s great revelation, the variety show presented by Adamo, who drives around France in his Mercedes; and about Aznavour, describing how few casinos are able to engage him, as his fee reaches nearly fifteen thousand francs: though in actual fact he earns very little, every performance of his being a whole show for which only he bears the cost.
Due to his success abroad, this is the first time in three years that he will tour France. Bécaud is billed a week in advance and is accompanied by a pianist and five other musicians; Sacha Distel’s rise is steady, he has given sixty-five concerts, twenty more than the year before. Jacques Brel shows his worth. ‘After he has paid his crew, he doesn’t have much left. He sometimes has to sing just for his own pleasure…’ concludes the reporter.
How time runs…I’ve travelled nineteen thousand five hundred kilometres in sixty-three days and sung seventy times.
Things go by quickly: I apply make-up, rehearse, run, run, sing, sleep, start again, work on new songs with Francis Lai, start again… sometimes I feel melancholy, weary to the point of death. Therefore I think of my songs. Depression comes and goes, and life continues. Last Sunday, in Nay, a small city of three thousand five hundred inhabitants between Pau and Lourdes, we stopped at an inn on the bank of the Gave river… it was five a.m. (I had sung at Saint-Céré…) and the air was marvellously clear with the freshness of dawn. I think to myself how I would love to stay here and watch the sun rise into the sky… but I must go to bed. Auntie awakens me at six in the evening. At seven, she tells me: ‘You must eat.’ She has ordered a light dinner: a well-grilled steak, a salad and strawberries without any cream. At 7:30 Victor is already behind the wheel, driving in the direction of Pau. There is only a little way to go. I wrap myself in my maroon shawl. I know that Johnny doesn’t like that colour, he thinks it only suits old women. Too bad! I like it. Auntie has hung my performance dress, encased in a plastic dust-cover, on the back door. I’m sitting in the front because I can sit in the rocking seat and fall asleep from the motion. I am awakened, as we have arrived before the villa of the president of the festival committee, who receives us for the time we have to spare before the performance.
- ‘Can we rehearse?’ I ask Francis Lai.
He grabs his electric accordion. It has a superb sound which makes me want to sing.
C’est ma première chanson d’amour
Je vous la donne sur des je t’aime…
In the street, people stop. Some young men yell, laughing:
- ‘Louder, Mireille!’
They laugh even more. I approach the open windows… they are going to have a small, spontaneous and free concert.
It is time to go to the dressing-room. This time, it is a toilet… because to go on stage, I must skirt a swimming pool!
Swiftly, Auntie puts my hair into five curlers and sticks my fringe and bangs to my forehead with scotch tape.
- ‘You can sing twelve songs this evening,’ says Johnny.
It’s practice for Olympia… I apply my make-up. And then I stretch out on the floor. I breathe the way I was shown by Jean Lumière. There: I am calm, I can put on my first stage dress, a short red one, and shoes with square heels, the kind I like most. It’s very important to like one’s shoes. It makes it easier to walk gracefully. The speaker announces: ‘Johnny Stark is very proud to present Mireille Mathieu!’ and I go out… Auntie remains in the wings, with the shawl and a glass of water.
Tomorrow we’re going back up to Paris. There will just be enough time to fly to Germany for a very important television programme.
- ‘Hello, Papa? How are you? I’m in Berlin! No, Papa, I don’t have time, but I saw the Wall through the car window on my way to the studio. I think it’s terrible, Papa… even if ‘they didn’t steal it’, as you say. It makes me ill at ease…’
- ‘Is that why your voice sounds so frail?’
- ‘They’re calling me to rehearsal. I’ll phone you tomorrow!’
I never lie to him, but… I don’t want him to worry. It’s so easy when people are so far away from each other. I’m not well, it’s true. They had to call the doctor. I can barely feel my legs beneath me.
- ‘Overwork…’ he says. ‘And a common illness in young women… a haemorrhage. I’m going to raise her blood pressure. It’s only 8 and a half…’
He gives me an injection. I lie down to rest. I wanted to call home. But… what is happening to me? Even to speak to them seems an insurmountable task. Johnny looks very worried. Auntie watches me closely. The doctor has left, saying that my pulse has improved.
- ‘When am I going on?’
- ‘You still have about an hour to go…’
- ‘Ah! Good. It’ll be all right…’
And I sleep. Grandmama’s hand leads me to the rosebush before the entrance to the kindergarten… but there is a large hole in front of it and I fall, and they boo me, I hear hisses… I fall… I wake up with a start. And burst out sobbing. Auntie is there at once. She forces me to drink something unfamiliar.
- ‘The doctor said to give you this… how do you feel?’
- ‘Better. It was a dream… about Grandmama.’
- ‘Do you think you’ll be able to sing?’
Her eyes are worried. It takes my smile to reassure her:
- ‘Yes, I believe I will be able to sing ‘Oui, je crois’! What would be so terrible is… what if my career stopped, just as suddenly as it began? You see, Auntie, it is that also which worries me sick. More than travel, crowds, the public… Grandmama holds my hand, but sometimes I dream that the audience boos me and my misery returns. It makes me afraid.’
- ‘What makes me afraid is your face of an hour before. It looks much better now, thank goodness.’
Johnny returns. He asks me whether I think myself strong enough to stand up and go to the stage. If I think I’ll be able to sing?
- ‘You won’t have to strain yourself. They’ve been great, they’ve put mikes everywhere… so there’s no need to worry.’
I lean on him and when we arrive on the set, the entire crew applauds. The doctor has stayed here. He measures my pulse and smiles. That little injection did me good, eh? I don’t want to offend him… but the best medicine for me is cries of ‘bravo’!
I am eager to continue the tour of France.
These are the first days of September, a month which I love. It is still redolent with summer, rich in colours, in this country which has no lack of them. We are again in the South-West, between Toulouse and Foix. Johnny books rooms in castles or inns situated in the verdant countryside so that I can rest as much as possible. Today I slept for eleven hours and I feel refreshed, happy. I want to put on my white and orange-striped dress. Francis and I have decided to rehearse in the open air. On the way, I’m going to pick some snapdragons…
- ‘Look, Francis, it’s a wild tomato! We used to pick baskets of it at home! It didn’t cost anything, you see.’
- ‘What do you want to sing? ‘Un homme, une femme’?’
- ‘It’s a wonderful place to sing it!’
Francis takes up his accordion.
It’s true that when the sky is so blue, your soul is uplifted, inspired. The simplest words have wings:
Ton cœur y croit
Encore une fois
La vie repart…
The big top erected at Pamiers fits two thousand people. On the way there, passing through the city, the cathedral of Saint-Antonin seems to beckon to me. I ask Johnny to stop for just a little moment, so that I can burn a candle. The church is made entirely of brick, with a crown of crenellations… like a castle. I must find time to send Hugues Aufray a postcard: it’s one of the fiefs which was owned by his ancestors, the counts de Foix. ‘Saint Antonin was martyred here in 506’, reads a notice. I ask Auntie if she knows anything about this saint. But she doesn’t… Alas! It was Grandmama who knew them all…
In the evening, I perform my twelve songs to thunderous applause. Johnny, who is watching me from the wings, sends me back onstage with the words: ‘Go! ‘Un homme, une femme’!’
I am troubled. It wasn’t planned. Instead of ‘da ba da’… I’ll probably sing ‘da da dé’!
- ‘It doesn’t matter,’ says Johnny, ‘it’s all still the same old ‘yeah, yeah’! You’ll be fine!’
But I’m not content with that. I’ll just have to fight it out. How funny… nine months ago I wasn’t afraid at all and now I tremble. I hurt all over… Is the approaching solo concert in Olympia too much for me after all?
During supper, I don’t know how, the conversation turns to war. And I suddenly burst into tears. Everyone stops talking, they all look at me in amazement.
- ‘I know why,’ says Johnny. ‘It’s because of Olympia… This uncertainty will come again, Mireille, it’s normal to be afraid.’
When I went there for the first time, I didn’t think about anything but singing, without knowing what to sing or how to do it. Now, I am in torment, I cross-examine myself, I feel completely off-balance, and still the joy of my life is to sing. I don’t know how to do anything else. I am unfit for doing anything else. I am absolutely ignorant, and I am incapable of doing anything but singing. And if I lost my voice? Who could help me?
At bedtime, when she brings me her miracle tisane, the one that makes one fall fast asleep, Auntie says:
- ‘But why do you worry so, my darling? You have the voice of the Good Lord. He has given it to you. Why do you want him to take it back? Does that mean that you don’t trust in him any more?’
That would be the greatest sin I could commit…
- ‘Pray for me, Auntie.’
She smiles her clear smile.
- ‘But I do it every day. You are in no danger.’
And yet… some days later…
The tour is coming to an end. We have returned to Paris in time to pack the luggage we will need and take the car to the village of Mantes for a photo shoot. After having travelled thousands of kilometres, it is a pleasant short journey: we’ll continue on to Trouville where I’m singing that night. Nadine, who has stoically remained at Avenue Wagram all summer, comes with us. The three of us, Nadine, Auntie and I, are in the first car, and Johnny is in the second with Francis Lai and the musicians. Piccolo has gone on ahead to look at the technical equipment. Suddenly, something seems to be happening on the motorway. There is no time to comprehend it. The car skids and collides with the roadside fence despite Victor’s attempts to stop it. He gets out to look at the damage and then another, strange car, seemingly unable to brake, rams us in the back in the exact spot where I am sitting. The shock is so violent that the door is flung open and I am thrown out. In the process, I lose my shoes. Barefoot, looking like a madwoman, I run along the asphalt, singing at the top of my voice:
Viens dans ma ville!
Viens dans ma rue!
Et peut-être que tu verras
Que cette femme qui t’aime
C’est bien moi!
Johnny’s car has stopped next to ours. He runs after me. He is extremely upset.
- ‘What’s wrong, Mireille? What’s happened? Are you hurt?’
I read in his eyes that he thinks I’ve gone crazy.
- ‘No… I only want to make sure I haven’t lost my voice. I’m singing this evening.’
He leads me gently back to his car. Nadine climbs out of ours, her hand on the back of her neck. Auntie joins us, apparently unhurt. Victor, aided by the musicians, is trying to drag our luggage from the trunk. They don’t succeed – the back of the car is completely crushed.
- ‘Dear Lord! How lucky that the instruments were with us!’ Cries Francis.
- ‘And my dress! My dress is totally destroyed!’
We search for my shoes, which were thrown several metres. Johnny says too bad about the shoes, we must leave immediately and see a doctor. We leave Victor with the wreck. I didn’t feel anything before, but now I hurt all over, and my legs are especially painful. When we arrive at the theatre and Piccolo sees us, everything goes topsy-turvy. I am made to lie down on a sofa. Doctor Giraux arrives; nothing turns out to be broken. There are multiple bruises, particularly on the legs. An injection, some tablets… he is used to performers and artists: he is the physician of Cecile Soel!
- ‘But doctor, I mustn’t sleep! I’m going onstage in one and a half hours!’
- ‘Calm down: sleep is a tonic to help restore you. You have very low blood pressure…’
He examines Auntie and Nadine. And comments that we were very lucky. And doubtlessly we were. But my legs? Am I going to have bruises for a long time? My debut at Olympia is in ten days..!
I try to calm myself with breathing exercises, but my sides hurt me when I breathe. It’s already time to prepare to go onstage. The doctor tells me that he’ll remain in the wings. Auntie, who is still very shaken, stays in the dressing room, and it’s Johnny who hands me the glass of water. I am forced to go behind the curtain to drink more often than usual. My throat is horribly dry and my temples are throbbing. But in the end… I take the concert all the way. And its success is such that I have to do an encore of ‘Mon credo’. Finally it is over. I go offstage and collapse into Johnny’s arms, bursting into tears to top it off. Entry is barred to the people wanting to go backstage. The doctor gives me another medicine unknown to me. I feel as though I can never get up again. Who was it that called me the puppet of Johnny Stark? Now it’s true: I’m no more than a little broken doll.
- ‘How many more concerts do you have to do?’
- ‘Two before Olympia: at Dieppe and Chauvigny.’
- ‘Cancel them, Monsieur Stark. You all need ten days of complete rest.’
‘Paris, 5 September 1966
‘My dear parents,
‘I was unable to call you this evening, although I wanted to talk to you very much.
‘Everything is going well at the moment, I am happy and am rehearsing ‘hard’ (despite the advice of the doctors whom I saw after my accident), but you know well that I live to sing, after all!
‘I have a crazy fear of Olympia, it is such a large place for me to sing, me, who is so little.
‘I hope to see you all very soon and I send you my dearest love. Distribute my kisses among the little ones and my elder sisters.
- ‘Do you realise, Mademoiselle Mireille, that it takes people many years to descend three storeys?’
This is said by my costumer. Last time we spoke she called me ‘Mimi’ and I asked her to go on doing so. It’s true that I’m no longer higher up, in the small dressing room next to that of the corps de ballet, but in the one intended for the singers, wallpapered in rose and yellow, only several metres away from the stage. I have a telephone and even a fridge with champagne in it. As is my habit, I am there very early. And Patricia asks me if she can schedule some interviews with the reporters. I reply that we can’t refuse. But I am not very interesting really: I don’t have any exciting stories to tell.
- ‘What!’ Says the first journalist whom I receive. ‘But there was your accident! Unless…’
Ah! There is a hidden meaning in the question. I can see it in his face. I wait for him to explain himself.
- ‘There are some people in your profession who say – it’s a joke, of course – that Stark is quite capable of organising a so-called accident to put your name on everyone’s lips. You must admit that this happened just before your appearance in Olympia!’
What to do? There are moments when I regret not knowing judo. Well. Breathe deeply. My silence disconcerts him. He beats a hasty retreat. It’s nothing but a joke, as he has said… Nadine appears with newly-bought items of makeup. I introduce them. Her blue eyes swiftly detect an air of uneasiness… I tell her that the gentleman was just speaking to me about a staged accident… the poor man. He doesn’t know that if one dares to attempt to touch a hair on the head of M. Stark, Nadine’s own hair stands up on her head with indignation and her voice is raised in pursuit of the point:
- ‘Would you like to see the medical report? The correspondence with the insurance company? The police statement? The eyewitness’s declaration? The x-ray of Mimi’s ribs? That of my cervical vertebrae?…’
The cowed young man slips from the room.
- ‘I would like it if you stayed here all the time, Nadine. I have no wish to talk.’
Happily, Johnny arrives and takes over for the next interview, with the reporter from ‘L’Aurore’. Johnny explains to him that I shouldn’t be here, the doctor had prescribed complete rest. Why? Nervous shock.
- ‘For the first time, she has disobeyed me.’
- ‘Because she wants to sing.’
Johnny tells him that he even sent me a letter about it.
- ‘You write to her!’ Says the journalist, very surprised.
- ‘I have to occasionally. As you know better than anyone, words disappear. Writing remains.’
- ‘But… you see each other every day…!’
- ‘Practically, yes. But it’s an old habit which I picked up from the 17th century when, meeting one another daily - Paris was a small city in those days – people still didn’t write to each other less often! Mireille is a reflective little person, calm, honest, who thinks of nothing but her job. She works in the tranquillity of her apartment. And a letter, which she can re-read and weigh up in her mind, teaches her more than an entire tirade given in a heated moment.’
- ‘But this one still didn’t have an effect?’
- ‘No. Because this time it is a matter of her inner strength and she alone can judge it.’
The journalist records this conversation fairly accurately, painting Johnny and his paternal gestures towards his ‘filly’, his way of looking after my coat, my bag… which I am quite prone to allowing to remain behind.
What really intrigues the reporters is the manner in which I pass my time.
- ‘When I don’t have a concert or a rehearsal, I stay at home with Francis Lai, Paul Mauriat… and we compose songs. I don’t like to go out. I never read. I don’t go to the cinema. I don’t go to see my family. I give everything to music. It’s my life. The Good Lord helps me to keep going. In any case, nothing else interests me. Money - I don’t think of it.’
It seems perfectly clear to me, now and ever. But I will need to repeat it to everyone, all the time. I ought to record it on a disc! However, they probably won’t believe me even then.
- ‘When Antoine sings: ‘I don’t like Edith Mathieu’, does that sadden you?’
- ‘It makes me laugh. What would bother me is if he called me Mireille Antoine.’
I don’t regret my response in the least.
- ‘Hello? Mireille? It’s Maurice!’
- ‘Oh! Monsieur Chevalier! I’m so happy to hear you! You wouldn’t believe…!’
- ‘How are you, sweetheart, after that accident?’
- ‘All right… and not all right. I don’t know anymore whether it’s the shock or the stage fright which makes it so difficult. Many things have happened in these four months.’
- ‘I know them all.’
I tell him that Johnny has given me the freedom of cancelling the concert if I feel unwell, but it seems to me that I’ll feel even worse if I do!
- ‘You understand, Mireille, all the moments of an artist’s existence are summed up in this simple rule: show a brave face. It’s better to earn a stiff neck looking too high than to become hunchbacked from looking too low!.. I make you laugh? Then your mood’s getting better!’
I admit to him that I often feel disappointed with what is said around me or what is written about me…
- ‘My dear child, in my time there was a critic, a very great critic, who made me despair about life… and, several years later, he found me irresistible. His compliments gave me less pleasure than his criticisms had given me pain. Because I was beginning to understand that for us, Mireille, the people of the stage, we only have two masters: the audience and the director. Bruno Coquatrix has engaged you and the public adore you. That’s all.’
- ‘And you, Monsieur Chevalier, will you come to my première?’
- ‘That’s what I’m calling you to say! And afterwards, we’ll have lunch together!’
For the first half, Bruno Coquatrix has billed Georges Chelon, who is a thoughtful and delicate singer, and two Olympian champions, Roger Pierre and Jean-Marc Thibault. They have an energy which flows from the stage into the wings. They hold the record for the longest-running duo partnership in France. They are so used to each other that if one of them begins a phrase, the other can finish it off: the result of eighteen years of working together. If you remember that a two-year old child begins to take conscious notice of his surroundings after he begins to walk, their career is longer even than my entire life! And nevertheless, they have the air of college students.
Because they sense my distress, they do everything they can to make me forget it. They tell me that once, when they were fresh out of a small cabaret in the Amiral and were at Olympia for the first time, someone said about them: ‘They’re horses from the Tuileries stables who want to run at the Auteuil racecourse.’ Friends warned them, for their benefit, of course, that they were heading for a complete disaster. However, they had such a triumph - à merveille - that one of the special guests, the Countess of Toulouse-Lautrec, famous under the name of Mapie for her culinary recipes, loudly drummed their song ‘La Vaisselle’ (‘The Dishes’) on a large pan, copies of which were handed out to upper-class spectators as an accessory.
Bruno adores this sort of eccentricity. He is delighted by Johnny and Eddie Barclay’s initiative in sending him, along with the invitations, a corrected map of Avignon, the streets renamed with the titles of my songs and two boulevards bearing their own names, leaving Bruno himself a mere alley! This map was transferred in part on to the disc cover of which fifteen hundred copies were printed to hand out to the special guests of this premiere.
On the wall of my dressing-room telegrams are pinned like butterflies. Visitors remark with amazement that, alongside the names of our own celebrities, such as Sacha Distel, Adamo, Line Renaud, Dalida, Petula Clark, Hervé Villard, Robert Manuel, Jacques Chazot… (among others), there are those of famous Hollywood residents, Joe Pasternak having mobilised his team: Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Bing Crosby, Joan Crawford, Fred Astaire, Danny Kaye. In a particularly ironic look I read the thought: ‘All this is sent from Avenue Wagram! Another of Stark’s tricks!’ They can’t imagine that Joe Pasternak already considers me part of this same team. Why disabuse them of the mistake they have made in the address: all these telegrams come from Pelagio Road, Hollywood.
The first to show up backstage, Vick Vance, the reporter for Paris-Match, tells me:
- ‘They’re going to give you a queen’s welcome!’
And ‘they’ arrive: Maurice Chevalier and Félix Paquet, Aznavour and the blond Ulla, Eddie Barclay and his new wife, Henri Varna, Juliette and Marcel Achard, Pierre Barouh and Anouk Aimée, hand in hand, brought even closer by ‘Un homme, une femme’…
I’ve remembered Chevalier’s lesson. The audience? They’ve called me back fifteen times. Now it’s up to the director. Bruno, with his legendary calm which makes it difficult to know, not what he thinks, but what he is, as he greets everything, whether it be triumph or disaster, with the same complaisance, Bruno only has one word:
This is also tomorrow’s heading in France-Soir, with a photo of Maurice hugging me. But I find there is a great difference between this one and the one which appeared in the same spot nine months ago: I was alone, without my renowned godfather, in a small black dress, my face radiant. Now it is slightly hollowed out, and the look I give Maurice is very serious. My dress is very pretty, embroidered with semi-precious stones. The article says that I have the control of a professional singer and speaks of the shiver of tenderness which rolled through the hall when I presented Paul Mauriat’s orchestra in my accent. Nine months… the time it takes to bear a child. I’m going to show myself to the world, finally reborn as an adult.
The third crossing of the Atlantic
Olympia is only a brief stop in the whirlwind of my life: I appear here for three weeks, at the same time preparing for the departure for America, the third of the year and possibly the most important, as we have to make serious decisions. A young American girl follows me everywhere, haunting my dressing-room, with the task of teaching me to speak American, which means she often has to hold an entire conversation by herself!
Louis Féraud prepares my wardrobe and there are numerous fittings. He sews for me, among others, a black mini-dress, illuminated by colourful geometrical figures: a yellow spiral, red squares, a blue oval which resembles a fish. For the stage, he makes another mini-dress, sequinned blue. For a gala, a long velvet skirt the colour of raspberries with which goes a sweater reaching below the waist… I was charmed by a foal coat adorned by a white collar… shoes and bags must be chosen, scarves must be decided upon…
The days run by quickly because it is imperative that I sleep ten to eleven hours each night. It seems that the press is divided in its opinion of me… but I have no time to read any of it. I know that, contrary to France-Soir which has already elevated me to sainthood, Le Monde finds that I yet have much to learn; I haven't succeeded in moving Combat, but L’Humanité believes that my hold over the public is firm. Try to sort this one out…
The feast of St. Maurice is on the 22nd of September. I order a delivery of seventy-eight enormous apples to the house of the famed performer of ‘Ma pomme’ (‘My Apple’) in Marnes-la-Coquette. One for each year of his life! He thanks me with a telegram, which I add to my wall of precious butterflies.
‘Thank you, my adorable Mireille, for the colossal apples. I await your coming of age to ask for your hand officially. You can count on your friend Maurice.’
When Mama reads this, she asks me, looking somewhat troubled:
- ‘He’s joking?’
- ‘Of course!’
- ‘Ah good!.. Because he’s a little old for you, you know!’
She makes me laugh. She has dropped in to Paris with a secret to tell me.
- ‘There are things, you understand, which we can’t tell you via the telephone at the drug store!’
- ‘Mama, I told you… find yourselves a nice little house… I’ll buy it for you! I only wanted to win the Critérium so that I could do this! The time has come…’
- ‘You’re sure?’
- ‘I’m sure that you can begin to look for it.’
- ‘All the same, it won’t be all that small… there’re fourteen of us… without you.’
- ‘I said ‘small’, meaning ‘cute’, but you’re probably right, it needs to be fairly large. You’ve spent all your lives too cramped.’
- ‘Especially since soon… this is what I wanted to tell you… we’ll number fifteen!’
- ‘Yes… the fourteenth is on the way!’
- ‘Does Papa know?’
- ‘Naturally… how could he not? He did have something to do with it, you know! I’m happy: it’ll cheer him up a little!’
What an extraordinary woman Mama is… always gay and valiant. Each pregnancy is particularly difficult for her, with her feet so painful. I entwine my arm in hers:
- ‘I’m proud of you. Who would have thought it. When is it due?’
- ‘In six months.’
- ‘What does the doctor say? Does he think they’ll have to operate on your legs?’
- ‘We’ll deal with that later. It’s too expensive.’
- ‘But that doesn’t matter. I can afford to pay for it now! Ask him whether they can operate on you immediately! Would you prefer a boy or a girl?’
- ‘A boy. That would equalize the sexes: seven and seven.’
- ‘Oh yes! That’s a lucky number. I’ll burn a candle to Saint Rita. What would you like to call him?’
- ‘Ah! I like it! It’s a good name in our parts! Look after yourself. Think of what Grandmama said: eat a lot of cauliflower, mushrooms and artichokes. Why do you laugh?’
- ‘It feels as though you’re the mother talking to her daughter!’
Mama has departed for home. It’s true that I feel as tired as a future grandmother. We’re recording the second disc. We’re rehearsing in Olympia. Johnny goes over the details of the orchestration with Paul Mauriat. It never ends. I want to curl up to sleep somewhere. The orchestra pit is deserted, welcoming, full of shadow. I slip in there. By the side of a harp. It always makes me think of angels…
I start awake, feeling dazed. The stage manager is shaking me by the shoulder:
- ‘She’s here! She’s here! I’ve found her!’
It seems that they looked for me everywhere, for a whole hour, that when the time came to rehearse a song - no Mireille. They called (I didn’t hear anything… I never do when I sleep!). Johnny is equal part furious and worried. He thought I had returned home or that I was window-shopping outside (how like him to think that! I never left the theatre!).
- ‘You could have been kidnapped!’
The words escape him involuntarily. Annoyed, he adds:
- ‘You can never know. There are plenty of maniacs about.’
This is how I discover that menacing letters have been arriving in his office.
- ‘But it’s normal, it’s normal!’ Says Nadine. ‘All artists receive them!’
- ‘They want to kidnap all the artists? What is this story you’re telling me?’
- ‘No… but madmen, they are capable of anything! Threats of kidnapping… but there’s no cause for worry, it never happens! Besides, you see how Olympia is always guarded.’
It’s true. There is a door with a large, strapping security guard, a glass cabin with another guard inside, a fence… the door leading to the hall is double and also permanently watched.
- ‘They’ve seen some pretty big fights here! Fans can be lunatics sometimes!’ Says the warden.
Having calmed down, Johnny cancels the rehearsal and sends me to my dressing room to doze the rest of the time before the performance. I again fall into a very deep sleep, permeated with bizarre and harrowing images, menacing shadows… I end up waking and, for fear of falling asleep again, call Francis Lai. I want to rehearse our songs. After I’ve sung, the dark fancies will have fled. Everything becomes simple.
I’m a simple girl.
This is what I tell Johnny when, while we’re packing for the trip to America, he tells me that I must bring some jewellery.
- ‘It doesn’t suit me.’
- ‘There is jewellery and there is jewellery. You’re not going to have to wear that of an Indian ruler’s wife. A nice, discreet gold necklace, a bracelet, a pair of earrings, also discreet, all this for going out, naturally, not for the stage, I assure you that it’s dignified for the Mireille Mathieu whose name appears at the top of the bills, who is no longer a poor little debutante. You’ll keep your gilded medallion under your blouse.’
- ‘Johnny has a point,’ says Auntie. ‘You’re a young lady, you’re no longer a child. The truth of which I question, sometimes… your things are always so untidy…’
- ‘That’s because I’m not used to having many of them.’
- ‘No, Mireille. It’s because you don’t clean up!’
- ‘Ah! Which is what you’re crazy about, Auntie!’
- ‘Please, Mireille!’
Her voice is severe.
- ‘Head of the bills and head made of wood. In my opinion, being one doesn’t preclude being the other!’
- ‘You can argue another day,’ Johnny cuts in. ‘Think rather of your luggage!’
I understand that Johnny is making peace; he’s absolutely brilliant. This time, we take with us the film-maker, François Reichenbach, and his assistants. François is going to make a TV film for the end-of-year celebrations, ‘The Fairytale of Mireille Mathieu’. The idea charms me. Nevertheless, my first meeting with François couldn’t be called love at first sight. He explained it frankly, moreover:
- ‘At first, I didn’t want to hear of it because I was afraid of betraying another singer…’
This is also how he begins his film. To me, he says more gently than at our first meeting:
- ‘You understand, Mademoiselle, it’s very difficult for me to listen to you because I adored and will always adore Piaf.’
- ‘I understand very well, Monsieur. I also. If she hadn’t existed, I would perhaps never have had the push I needed and I would then still be gluing envelopes!’
The look in his eye changes. I know it well now, the look in his eyes. He can see everything or nothing, at will. When he’s not interested, he becomes like a dull pewter statue. He agreed to join us in Avignon when I was given a reception at the city hotel… He went to see the little monster of whom the whole world spoke in her natural setting, with curiosity, not aggressively, as he is incapable of it, but also coldly. I was happy because he had filmed M. Colombe, very emotional in his speech, speaking of ‘the fresh, rejuvenated and youthful song’ of the little ‘100% Avignon native, very attached to her home town and her deserving family…’, finishing with the announcement that I would return to sing to the maladjusted children in Vaucluse. I was glad that there was a camera, since the entire Mathieu family was there, around me, in front of the bust of Marianne. I was glad, because I’ve always liked pictures. They influence me the most, more than words, as I haven’t read much. The day when I said this to Reichenbach, there was a spark in his eye.
- ‘Do you know of Cocteau?’
- ‘The gentleman who filmed ‘Beauty and the Beast’? I saw photos in a magazine, with an article about Jean Marais, but I haven’t yet seen the film. I would like to… when I have time… and I also know that he died the same day as Piaf. I saw it in the newspapers.’
His eyes become a very gentle blue.
- ‘This man was my friend. He said to me one day: ‘The images you film are words. To edit a film is to assemble phrases and sentences…’ Without knowing it, you are saying the same thing. I’ll show you his drawings sometime…’
When he learns that I was born on the 22nd of July, he jumps:
- ‘Ah! I understand! You’re a Cancer! Like me! I was born on the 3rd! And Cocteau, he was a Cancer too… It’s the sign of the eye, of the imagination. When I was little I didn’t speak much, which angered my father, who thought me deceitful. When he understood that I looked rather than spoke, he declared me a dreamer. An observer would have been fairer. You must also like to observe?’
- ‘Yes. But it’s true that I don’t speak much, except when I’m with my family…’
We had become friends, changing to ‘tu’ instead of ‘vous’ without noticing; and with Cancers, friendship is for life.
As we went along, we discovered common interests: he was a dunce at school… because he was a dreamer. He knew many operettas by heat, because his mother had a very pretty voice and once a year she’d perform in charity concerts. He could look at the sky as long as it played with light. For example, he’d say to you: ‘Ah! This evening, the moon is completely white, if you get up early tomorrow, everything will be coloured rose!’ I would love to see all his films… he tells me that he’ll show them to me. The previous year, he received the gold palm at the Cannes festival for ‘La Douceur du village’. He describes the beginning of it to me: there is a class and the teacher says: ‘Let’s speak of the cow. It the cow useful to man? Yes. Why is it useful to man? Because it gives him its skin. And what is the skin of the cow? It’s leather, the leather of which your satchels are made and which are so resistant to rain. But that’s not all. What does the cow give? Well then, it gives its milk. Let’s sum it up. It gives its skin, its meat, its milk, its horns. It gives everything. Therefore the cow is a useful animal.’ And François adds: ‘Simple words, repeated, become a poem to be admired, because they are true.’
And for me, it is a poetry I can understand.
He says to me:
- ‘I like your smile. It has a sort of charm. Charm is like miracles, it is inexplicable and precious. To smile is already to love.’
And what I love about François is that he not only has eyes but also ears. Persuaded to believe in me, at last, he accepts Johnny’s idea to reconstruct the Critérium, which he had never attended. And here I am, to the great joy of Avignon, once more before the large microphone, in the little black dress of my debut, singing ‘L’Hymne à l’amour’ in the open air… with a beautiful blue sky, as though veiled with a little thin white cotton, above me, and with a large, happy, warm audience before me… they play this game of the pseudo-Critérium particularly seriously, as the profits from the concert will go to crippled children.
So now, we are about to depart for the America which he knows so well:
- ‘The first time I went there, my flight took almost twenty-four hours!’
- ‘What did you go there to do?’
- ‘Sell paintings, belonging to our family. It was just a pretext. The true reason was to see the country.’
He tells me that his first move was to take out an immigrant’s registration, and that he stayed years instead of months.
- ‘Do you know why I bought my first camera over there? Because I had no desire to send postcards!’
He starts filming me already, on the plane.
- ‘But I want to sleep.’
- ‘That’s all right, sleep, don’t bother yourself about me. Pretend I’m not there.’
- ‘That’s not easy!’
- ‘Fine. Well then, pretend I’m here, but without the camera: it’s nothing but my eye.’
Aunt Irène tucks me in and I depart for the country of my little white house on the edge of a blue sea… but, when I wake, reality turns out to be very different. To take us from the airport to the Waldorf Astoria, a private helicopter awaits. ‘It’ll only last about six minutes,’ they tell me. But when one is dying of terror, six minutes seem like a small eternity!
- ‘Don’t film, François, we’ll fall!’
I feel certain that the needle of the Empire State Building is going to spike the helicopter’s belly… but we escape it.
- ‘Descend a little bit more towards the skyscrapers!’ François asks the pilot.
This is when I understand that for the chance to film an interesting scene, he’d sell his soul to the devil!
We land on the roof of the Panam, in the heart of Park Avenue. Is it imaginable? François tells that the first time he filmed New York, fascinated by the combination of the vertical lines of the buildings and the horizontal lines of the streets, he was so distracted that he muddled the reels and inserted one that had already been used. This had the effect of producing an even more fantastical city, which people had thought an amazing find, lauding it as a work of genius, when it wasn’t much more, he said, than the result of an act of stupidity!
- ‘This is how I became a producer, because my first film won two prizes, that of the Tours festival and that of the Edinburgh one!’
And we laugh, we laugh…! All the more since we’ve all been put together in the Waldorf Astoria, in the suite usually reserved for the minister Dean Rusk: it consists of fourteen rooms! Which are all joined together. The big family! Uncle Jo and his wife Nicole, Bruno, Popaul (Mauriat), Francis Lai, François and his three assistants. Aunt Irène, having for the first time set foot in a palace, isn’t disoriented; imperturbable as ever, she quickly unpacks the suitcases and brushes my hair. A team from German TV awaits me… on the roof. This is probably almost all that I will see of New York this time: the terraced roofs of skyscrapers, which all look the same… variety is forgotten while each skyscraper seeks to be taller than the others. One is erected, knocked down again and another built in its place, over and over. The Panam had only been in existence these past four years, François assures me. He films everything he sees: the German team in the process of filming me themselves, my hesitations, the phrase which it annoys me to say:
- ‘It’s wonderful for a little Parisian girl to find herself on the roofs of New York and to dominate this enormous city…’
I burst out laughing: I’m not Parisian! I’m from Avignon, of course!
- ‘But the film is being made for Germany, Mimi. In Berlin, as in New York, Avignon doesn’t mean much!’
I try again:
- ‘It’s wonderful for a little Parisian…’
And I snort. What I would like right now is to sing with all my breath, to the irresistible waltzing melody: ‘Viens dans ma ville, viens dans ma rue!’ (‘Come to my city, come to my street!’).
What a perfect song to sing outside!
- ‘Don’t look at us, Mimi!’
It hasn’t turned out well. We’ll have to try again tomorrow. Right now, it is necessary to think about preparing for the soiree. A big concert, given by Maurice, held in the Empire Room of the Waldorf. It seems that this is the most chic room in New York, perhaps the world. The large eye of François’s camera spies me before my mirror.
- ‘You like to put on makeup, they say? You do it with pleasure and care…’
- ‘I adore it… if I had the power, I’d try new faces on, colour my eyes blue or violet… uncle Jo would blow his top… not to speak of Papa, who doesn’t even like rice powder!’
I send François out, as Aunt Irène passes me the dress chosen by Nicole, a rose one embroidered with gems, which sparkle at the neck and the cuffs. It’s probably also time for him to go and dress: when he has a camera in his hand, François forgets everything, forgets to eat, drink, change. It’s as though these things didn’t exist for him anymore!
The Empire Room is a cabaret with numerous tables, and ladies decked with diamonds which reflect in the mirrors. Everything glitters. We French also have our tables; my seat is at the edge of the passageway. When the presenter announces ‘The Number One Frenchman Maurice Chevalier’, I confess I feel a little shiver of pride. He enters to cries of ‘bravo’, lively, elegant in his dinner suit, with the smile which wins him the audience at once. Can one really believe that he is seventy-eight? Even were he forty, he probably still wouldn’t have made a greater impression on the ladies. He takes his boater hat, dons it and sings ‘You’re feeling blue’… and I notice that the men seem as pleased with the song as the women. The younger ones must be thinking of all the happy days before them, and the eldest, that there is still hope, since they are in the Empire Room with Maurice! And then, all of a sudden, he speaks, he speaks of me, it seems, since he is pointing me out and descending to our table… and I understand that he’s presenting me: ‘She is wonderful… Mireille Mathieu!’ He leads me on to the stage… where I am no longer afraid of anything. The stage is truly my own personal paradise.
Celui qui j’aime est un vaurien
Qui chante du soir au matin
Qui tient ma vie dans ses mains.
How I love it, this song of Aznavour’s! I never tire of it. And, I feel, neither does the audience…
Celui qui j’aime est un voyou (The one I love is a ham
Mais il m’aime But he loves me
Et je l’aime And I love him
Et le reste, je m’en fous. And for the rest I don’t give a damn.)
When I go back to my seat in the hall, Aunt Irène whispers:
- ‘I keep on asking myself where you learnt all these terms?’
- ‘But it wasn’t me, Auntie. It was Aznavour.’
Claude Philippe, the director of the Waldorf, a Frenchman, tells me that all the VIP of New York are assembled here, and on seeing my blank, ignorant gaze, elaborates: ‘The most important people.’
- ‘You have achieved in several minutes what it takes others years to obtain… and, more often, they don’t obtain it at all.’
Thanks to Maurice, I am not taken in. He presented me, François tells me, in a manner at once joking and affectionate, as ‘his young fiancée, the discovery of television, who rose to fame in France overnight’…
- ‘In that case, there was nothing for it but to go onstage…’
- ‘Yes… but you could have sung out of tune!’
After his performance, which was applauded and acclaimed, we find Maurice in his dressing room, a towel hanging from his neck, like a boxer after a round. Now I have trouble expressing my thanks. I smile at him, my biggest smile, so that he can see the depth of the feeling in my heart.
And since the ‘great eye’ is always there, spying indiscreetly, he tells Johnny in front of me:
- ‘I said everything I thought… she has something the others don’t… she has been launched into this profession all at once, propelled by her gifts, her sweet face, her voice, all these, together with a purity, a propriety which our singers haven’t often had. That’s how it happens that she can take us to the reaches of happiness… she fills her songs with melody and light; she can grow into an extraordinary artist. She will become a little master. Loved by great people such as those here today for her uniqueness, and loved popularly because she is a great little kid, do you understand?’
Do we understand…! Uncle Jo, Auntie both have tears in their eyes, and I feel as though there is a great sun inside me. I must remember these words, keep them for the days when I won’t be this happy, when I will be discouraged, perhaps, who knows? M. Chevalier has made me the greatest present in the world: he has traced my future.
He makes me yet another present. He asks me which song of his I like the most. I give an immediate response: ‘Ma pomme’ (‘My apple’).
- ‘The Americans also like it well. Why don’t you sing it on Andy Williams’ end-of-year show, if he’ll have you?’
- ‘…because I don’t know it.’
- ‘Well then… I’ll teach it to you. Shall we start tomorrow?’
The next day, then, in a room where Johnny has had a piano brought in, with a laughing Popaul before the keyboard, Maurice, wearing a sports jacket, gives me his lesson:
- ‘Ma pomme… c’est moi… ah… ah…! J’suis plus heureux qu’un roi! Your turn, my little dear…’
- ‘Ma pomme…’ (I repeat myself), ‘Ma pomme…’
- ‘Ah! That makes two apples, that does!’
Everyone bursts out laughing. I start again because I know that there is nothing more serious than trying to sing a song which isn’t!
- ‘Ma pomme… c’est moi… ah… ah…!’
- ‘That’s better,’ he tells me, ‘though still a bit too loud. But it’ll be all right.’
I start again, looking at myself in a mirror, as I did when I was small, sitting before my parents’ wardrobe mirror. I must make a circle with my mouth so that the sound emerges round and full, as Maurice manages to do so well: ‘ah… ah…!’
- ‘It’s the laugh of a peasant, do you understand? It has street wit in it. Aren’t there street jesters in Avignon?’
- ‘Yes. Only we call them trufarèu.’
- ‘She’s the opposite of Piaf,’ insists Maurice. ‘She a comedian, this little brat here, who nonetheless has the talent to become a great singer!’
What a compliment! I want to shower him with all the flowers that are in the sitting room. As it seems to me that I can’t exactly throw my arms around his neck, I break into a loud rendition of ‘Les gars de Ménilmontant’… to show him that I don’t just know the songs of Piaf off by heart!
And here we are, already it is time to go. We ascend back up to the roof to finish filming for the German television channel, and afterwards we are up in the wide sky once more, in a pretty white plane which bears great white letters spelling ‘EXPO MONTREAL’ on its sides.
Perhaps because I have one, I adore accents. There is something true in them, which it is impossible to renounce. Your native earth, which it is said you carry on the soles of your shoes, crumbles, disappears… because shoes are often cleaned and polished. Yet when one has an accent, it will always remain in one’s mouth, reminding one of home. The accent of Montreal is so strong, so well defined, that despite the skyscrapers, which turn this city into a corner of New York, you feel rested, as if you were in the countryside. Better: in the French countryside. I am at ease here. This is why, when M. François Chamberlain, a young official, receives me, before the cameras, the photographers, the radio reporters, all the media rabble, and offers me a large fur wrap, which he places about my shoulders – as the evening is already cool – I can’t hold myself back and say to him:
- ‘I would love to kiss you!’
Their sports stadium is hosting the Festival of National Songs. It is three times the size of that in Geneva. This is the first time that I will sing before twenty thousand people. But Johnny has taught me that the audience doesn’t matter; it is always the same. For the rest, it is the familiar ritual: Piccolo, adjusting the mikes and the lights, the rehearsal with the musicians, Popaul and Francis performing solo, ‘admitted’ as a special favour into an American orchestra, Auntie standing behind the scenes with an infusion, a glass of water, the shawl; the exit of the artists after signing photos. What is different here is that they speak to you familiarly and with affection.
- ‘I’ll just call you ‘Mireille’…’
- ‘Oh yes!… Will we see each other tomorrow?’
- ‘Unfortunately, no, by tomorrow… I will have left!’
They look cast down. I must admit, sometimes I have the desire to go to one of their homes, to see how they live, to stand next to their fireplaces, to know more about them, to be a real friend… I never offer them anything more than a swift kiss, and even then I’ve gotten into the habit of putting my cheek forward and allowing myself to be embraced, rather than pressing my lips to their faces, so as to protect my layer of lipstick.
Auntie, who sees me just before bedtime, looking anxious, asks me what’s the matter.
- ‘These people who love me… I am to them like a fairy princess… you know, like the coquette in the story Grandmama used to tell; she went from one person to another, forgetting her previous love even before her back was turned…’
- ‘But you’ve given them your voice, your smile, your heart… they’ll keep your disc, your photo, the memory of you… what more can you do?’
- ‘Yes, I know…’
She turns off the light. The silence is heavy.
- ‘Do you remember the end of the fairy tale, Auntie? The princess was changed into a frog.’
The silence becomes even heavier. She turns the light back on.
- ‘Have a good cry. Don’t be ashamed. It will happen more than once when you think of Grandmama.’
It’s not Grandmama. Grandmama is always with me, she has never left. It’s the frog. I am well acquainted with its croaking. We could hear it some evenings in ‘Chicago’, and it always worried me: neither a true cry, nor a song… and what if, one day, I lost my voice? What would become of me? I have nothing else…
An artist, not a tourist
I haven’t seen the maple forests and the red leaves of their trees during Indian summers. I haven’t seen St. Joseph’s Spring of Miracles. I haven’t strolled around Beaver Lake. I haven’t ridden a rope-cabin to the top of the Royal mountain, so I saw nothing of it save a great cross, which at night is all lit up, and thus continues to protect the city. I’m an artist and not a tourist, as Maurice said.
- ‘But you will return, you will return? For the Expo?’
Its building site is easily seen, cranes like long legs walking on the two islands in the middle of the river, so beautiful, so grand, much wider than our Rhône. One asks oneself: how is this going to be finished in some six months? A huge tower clock counts backwards: 198 days, 14 hours, 3 minutes, 20 seconds! That is the time left, at this precise moment, before the official unveiling. Everywhere in the city there can already be seen the title of Saint-Exupery’s book, which he has lent to the Expo: ‘Land of Man’. I find it very beautiful… ‘Make them build a tower together and you will change them into brothers…’. A Canadian gives me ‘The Little Prince’ at the airport, before I leave. I remember how one day Mme Julien read us a page of it: ‘Draw me a sheep…’. But I cannot read it on the plane. All together, we continue to make music, and I must perfect my songs. Tirelessly, I repeat them over and over. Because I always have trouble articulating them properly.
Johnny, Francis or Popaul will call me to order:
- ‘Marbles!’ (Meaning: ‘You’ve a mouthful of marbles!’)
‘The Little Prince’ remains my secret night-time rendezvous, I read it before falling asleep… I see him before me, so frail, so pretty with his golden hair, the hair drawn by Saint-Ex (I know now that he was called Saint-Ex, by those who loved him). I progress slowly, because I’ve never been a fast reader. And I even re-read some parts, because they contain phrases which sing to me.
On arriving at Kennedy Airport, before taking the helicopter to the Panam, we suddenly find ourselves in the midst of a nursery school class. Little Africans and Puerto-Ricans, on seeing me, stop and stare, fascinated by my miniskirt and my red hat. It is explained to them that I am a French Singer. They surround me, and I hug them. I tell them:
- ‘You are so small! I have the impression that you are my little brothers and sisters! I have thirteen of them! And soon I’m going to have fourteen or fifteen!’
I don’t give a thought to the reporters who have come to wait for us… and thus, the next morning:
- ‘Hello, Mama! You’re well? I’m already in New York!’
- ‘You haven’t felt queasy?’
- ‘No. And you?’
- ‘Me neither! It’s going very well.’
- ‘You know, Mama, you’re a celebrity in America: they know that you’re expecting your fourteenth! It’s already in all the papers!’
I might not see the country as a tourist, but I see that which the tourists do not. For example, in Dallas… where we are twenty-four hours later for the famous ‘Grande Quinzaine Française’, organised by Stanley Marcus, the owner of a chain of department stores. His slogan runs: ‘Here you can find anything you need, from a sewing needle to a Boeing!’ And the most amazing thing is that it’s true! But I get a shock when we are taken to see this M. Marcus: it's Victor Hugo in the flesh. He looks exactly like the old man with a white moustache whose picture is in my dictionary!
Even more shocking is the fact that he’s hired a whole troupe of cowboys, just like the ones in the films, hats, lassos, revolvers, horses and all, to greet and escort us… it seems that there are fifty thousand cowboys here, come from all four corners of Texas for this ‘Quinzaine’.
We are all lodged in the Sheraton Hotel, in which ballroom the gala party will be held. There is no need to leave the hotel, everything is inside: shops, souvenirs… and if Maurice Chevalier’s name isn’t on M. Marcus’s programme, because he is otherwise engaged, Lily Pons, a nation-wide celebrity, will be present in the room.
- ‘She was discovered by America at nineteen years of age, like you,’ François Reichenbach tells me, ‘and now, a city in the United States bears her name!’
Is it possible? She is of course staying in the same hotel.
- ‘You are the newest and the youngest here,’ says Johnny. ‘It’s up to you to greet her…’
I ask for her on the phone:
- ‘Can I please speak to Mme Lily Pons?’ (It’s she!)… ‘Madame, it’s Mireille Mathieu on the line… I apologise, Madame, for not calling you earlier…’ (Aunt Irène, Johnny, Nicole, the musicians are all watching my lips. Let us hope I don’t stammer!) ‘I thank you with all my heart!’ (She’s going to come listen to me this evening!) ‘I am very much afraid to sing before such a great diva of song...'’
- ‘…as you!’ Whispers Johnny.
- ‘As you. Thank you, Madame!’ (She says she wants to meet my manager…) ‘Very well, Madame. Until tonight…’ (I guffaw). ‘Yes, Madame!’
I hang up and Johnny demands what made me laugh so crazily?
- ‘She told me that she’d be at her table… ‘at 10 precisely, like a cop!’ She said ‘like a cop!’, with an American accent!’ (I later saw Lily at her property in Cannes, a city she adored...).
Nicole has gone to do the shopping and I, as is my habit in the hours preceding a performance, rest quietly in my rose dressing gown. Popaul makes me do some warm-up exercises, and then leaves. I know that this evening, there will be present in the room the governor-general of Texas, our ambassador in Washington - M. Charles Lucet, and his wife – as well as two hundred prominent figures in finance, politics, cinema, theatre…
François, imperturbably, continues to film me. Moreover, he hasn’t stopped for a moment. From time to time he’ll stretch out on his stomach on the ground, but he’ll always continue filming. I say to myself: he must sleep with his camera! And it’s practically true. He is always in need of sleep, because at night he goes in search of unusual images in racy districts, and once they looked for him all over the New York airport, thinking that he was going to miss the plane, when one of his assistants found him in a corner, curled up on the floor like an immigrant, his camera propping up his head, serving at once as a pillow and a teddy bear!
- ‘François, if it not annoy you…’
- ‘If it WON’T annoy you…’ (He has taken it into his head that he must help Johnny rid me of my habit of ignoring the negative construction. I know: it would be better if I spoke good French abroad. But it irritates me, the negative!)
- ‘If it WON’T annoy you, could you please stop filming? I’m going to put on my old dressing-gown and Johnny will be furious if you film me wearing it. He DOESN’T know that I brought it with me…’
I take it out from the bottom of my suitcase. François examines this shapeless piece of material, so often washed and darned.
- ‘What is it? Your lucky talisman?’
- ‘Perhaps. I DON’T know. I feel good in it. It gives me strength, do you understand?’
He understands. But he sighs:
- ‘Ah! What a shame… it would make such a great image… you, young and fresh, wearing this old thing. Are you really sure you don’t want to be filmed?’
And, in response to the surprised and frustrated look in his eye:
- ‘Ah! I do have the right to a private life, don’t I?’
- ‘Will I be in your way if I stay here?’
We each return to our armchairs. I close my eyes, he keeps his open, on watch. This is what friendship is.
The gala is a success. When I come onstage, the first person I see in the front row is… Lily Pons. She makes a discreet gesture of greeting… and I feel at once that my notes have wings… M. Marcus is enchanted. It’s impossible to communicate how delighted he is; and he sticks to his idea: to make me sing in the opera at Dallas. He tells me that I can ask anything of him, I can take anything I want from his shops tomorrow! But François has a better idea: couldn’t we go to Huntsville to see the convicts’ rodeo? M. Marcus will agree with pleasure, he will place his private plane at our disposal… but this isn’t to stop me from raiding his shops if I want to!
François is very excited: I am going to see a unique spectacle, which doesn’t take place every year, only in those in which there is a fifth Sunday in September. So, today, in Huntsville, which is like an enormous penitentiary, there is a celebration reminiscent of the ones they dream up in Texas: a grandiose rodeo… what interests me the most, however, is going into a shop and making for the hat section! I try on all of them… the tiny cap, the giant hood…
- ‘Oh! Johnny, this is so cute! This one here… but no. On my head, this don’t look good at all!’
- ‘DOESN’T look good. Mimi, you must check yourself! We won’t have M. Marcus’s private plane on the flight back to Paris. You’ve already chosen plenty of things for which we shall have to pay excess baggage tax!’
- ‘But it’s for my little sisters!’
- ‘You only have six of them! Not forty-two!’
François distracts me very easily from these frivolities because, knowing Dallas like the back of his hand, he wants to take me to see a Black church which is quite as good as the one in Harlem. And naturally, he films it all… here also, the most moving thing isn’t the church, it’s the looks of the people present. When we arrive, the choir is rehearsing… I mix with the choristers, humming along without opening my mouth. And then I begin one of my songs, which they don’t know:
Quand tu voudras
Notre bonheur viendra de toi
Sur le chemin de l’espérance…
And, in their turn, with an inner musical sense, they accompany me without opening their mouths.
Singing with a choir is perhaps what I like most of all. Then you don’t just have one voice, but many. And when I sing of peace and love, I feel that my mission on this earth – if I have a mission at all – is to sing songs like that. At such times I am very far indeed from the little comedian Chevalier guessed in me. Perhaps there are two personalities living in me? And these two Mireilles will do battle with one another?
- ‘Johnny… one day, I would like… you’re going to laugh… I would like to record a disc with the Little Singers of the Wooden Cross.’
- ‘I’m not laughing. It’s a great idea.’
- ‘It don’t seem silly to you?’
- ‘It DOESN’T seem silly to me. You can do it once you can speak good French!’
Popaul, Francis, François, Johnny and I. The others have remained in Dallas.
Huntsville. A smiling Hell. A Hell because one cannot forget that one is in a great penitentiary. Security guards are everywhere, machine guns in hand.
The director of the prison, a giant, receives us for breakfast. He measures close to two metres tall; he is booted, with a hat on his head, and is slumped on his sofa. He offers an immense green cigar to Johnny, and by his eyes it is clear that it is unsmokeable. We are served by prisoners with shaved heads. I smile at them as though they were my petite maid from the rue de Chézy. They smile back at me.
- ‘They seem very nice people,’ I whisper to François.
- ‘Very. The big one slaughtered his family of five people, and the small one cut them up into pieces…’
- ‘Stop it!’
He’s joking. Extremely badly. It will become clear to me...
The penitentiary is a small city with numerous streets and an immense stadium. That’s where the celebrated rodeo will take place. In the meantime, a bazaar is set up for the amusement of the curious and the friends and family of the prisoners. Here they sell mirrors, skirts, souvenirs, some of them made by the prisoners themselves.
A Black man in a boater hat, a striped shirt and a vest, bangs deafeningly away on the piano, looking like an acrobat: he has a leg on the stool, the other up in the air, and in this position, plays an old jazz tune.
- ‘He is a prisoner on parole, this one…’ François tells me.
- ‘It would have made a good number for Coquatrix!’ Says Johnny.
A little bit further away, another Black is playing the castanets. He is magnificent. François wants to film him, and so asks:
- ‘Are you free?’
That beats everything, posing a question like that to a man who has been sentenced to forty years in jail!
As guests of honour, we are taken to reserved places, near a small podium. About a dozen metres above us there is a cage with people in it…
- ‘What’s that?’
- ‘The orchestra.’
- ‘Are they really in a cage?’
- ‘Yes. Because they’re all condemned to death. Look: they have no lack of humour; they call themselves ‘The Notables’!’
I look at the notice. It’s the same word as in French, so I can pick it out. There are mainly Blacks, several Whites, and one especially draws my attention, with a very fine face behind his round glasses. What can he have done?
- ‘He shot people,’ François tells me.
I feel sweat at the roots of my hair, under my red hat. I put on my sunglasses, not to seem like a star, but because the idea of death gives me pain. I don’t feel very well. I say it’s because of the heat… the orchestra begins to play a ragtime air.
- ‘But François, they are remarkable!’
- ‘They are.’
They follow on with a poignant blues song.
- ‘Listen to the sax player, Mireille…’
It’s enough to make you cry. All his soul goes into his instrument. He’s asking for pardon! I’m certain that he’s asking for pardon.
- ‘They don’t pardon prisoners in Huntsville… Yet today, some of them will have a small chance. If at the rodeo, they show themselves to be the most courageous, the most audacious, the best, they may have their long imprisonment shortened by several years. But for those in the cage… it’s over.’
It’s intolerable… the clarinet responds to the sax, heart-rendingly.
- ‘But they are such artists, François… one cannot shoot an artist!’
- ‘One shouldn’t; but the pain of death is inevitable for a murderer here, and not all of those musicians are angels.’
They are applauded; they sit down after taking bows as though they were on stage, watched behind the grille by guards with machine guns. François says that one day he’ll make a film about the fors and againsts of capital punishment.
- ‘I’ll return to Texas. Because it’s at once a western and a sci-fi, the past and the future. In Huntsville it’s the penitentiary and, next door in Houston, the astronauts’ academy: the contradiction of liberty and humanity’s greatest escape… extraordinary, isn’t it?’
This is the moment Johnny chooses to say:
- ‘Mireille, you’re going to sing now…’
- ‘In the stadium! It’s not possible. I feel rather strange and unwell…’
- ‘I know you: you feel better when you sing. The director has asked you to do it. We’re going to borrow an accordion for Francis and Popaul’.
Francis Lai has a terrorised look about him: the one time he went for a walk without his instrument, as a tourist!… François says that it will be sublime (he of course never forgets his camera!), and that I must sing for these poor people. The American national anthem interrupts us, and fifty thousand people all rise as one. The prisoners also stand. The end of the anthem, and everyone sits back down, as though to see something completely ordinary…
In satin sky-blue shirts, wearing their legendary hats, the riders gallop two by two onto the arena, to the sound of wild applause. Then come the acrobatics… the riders stand up on their horses’ backs, slip under their bellies at full gallop… their costumes are the most fantastic things there; there are clowns, a Superman, a Batman… they are all convicts who are risking breaking their necks, but what have they to lose?
One accordion, belonging to a prisoner, has been procured for Francis and Popaul. We ascend the podium. I’ve taken off my sunglasses… a speaker presents me, I hear:
- ‘Maé-reye Ma-ti-ou!’ And we’re off, Popaul and Francis playing the waltz with four arms!
Quand le cafard tourne en rond dans ma tête
Viens dans ma ville, viens dans ma rue
Quand les amis, les amours font la tête
Y a du ciel bleu qui t’attend dans la rue
Un bouquet de soleil par-dessus
Et ça donne un air de fête…
There certainly aren’t many people there who understand the words, but everyone is suddenly very quiet… and, at the end, there is an explosion of cheers and whistles… from fifty thousand people!
Francis is still green.
- ‘I’ve never been so afraid in my life…’ he says to me.
I am much more scared by the rodeo. Wild horses throw people violently to the ground. When one of the riders is slow to rise, his friends carry him away as quickly as possible. The infirmary must be full… if, however, a rider manages to stay on the bucking beast, the audience screams in triumph. I replace my sunglasses on my face. They permit me to close my eyes.
- ‘This isn’t a country of weaklings,’ François tells me on the plane back. ‘The pioneers who established this country weren’t weaklings either. And that wasn’t so long ago. Force and violence spurt out of here like the petroleum.’
He is passionate and inexhaustible on the subject of his ‘Unusual America’ (the title of his first great film, released in 1960). He recounts to me how his friends asked him how he managed to gain entry to the prisons, and film from a plane carrier:
- ‘I kept under my coat a picture of Bardot not wearing a coat!’
He assures me that the average street American only knows of three French celebrities: Chevalier, Bardot and the General de Gaulle.
- ‘And also Charles Boyer, and Lily Pons, and Claudette Colbert, and Louis Jourdan?’ Completes Johnny.
- ‘Yes! But they take them for Americans.’
- ‘Well, that’s not something you risk happening to you!’ Johnny says to me when we are all back at the bungalows of the Beverly Hills Hotel.
He’s not very happy. Here’s why. Our arrival in Los Angeles had been like those you see in the movies. Joe Pasternak, with whom we had become friends, had mobilised a whole army of journalists and photographers to receive ‘his’ discovery, which charmed François:
- ‘Do you know that they’re hailing you as the new Deanna Durbin, or the French Judy Garland?’
He films our broken dialogue:
- ‘How will you learn the language to be able to make a Pasternak film?’ Joe worries.
- ‘I will learn… lessons English… avec somebody: hello! Goodbye! I love you!’
But Johnny, between ourselves, isn’t as satisfied.
- ‘You really haven’t made any progress since last time!’
- ‘It’s only been five months, Johnny.’
- ‘In five months anyone taking such intense lessons as you will have managed to sort themselves out! I don’t understand it: you have a good ear. You remember any air without knowing a note of music. But the words!’
- ‘I know. It not the same…’
- ‘IT’S not the same!’
- ‘It’s not the same.’
I feel his exasperation. I explain it to Aunt Irène in the evening:
- ‘You understand, Auntie, in French the words create images for me. I retain them and I love them. It’s really true that I like words; some of them are very pretty. It’s as though they had faces. But in English, I see nothing at all. These W’s everywhere, these GHT, these TH…’
She tells me not to work myself up about it. That it will be fine.
- ‘But it’s Johnny who’s getting worked up about it!’
For Joe Pasternak, my ignorance of English doesn’t seem all that important. He has put aside his idea of a remake of ‘A Star is Born’ and the beauty contest series. He has an idea, he says, which is even more fantastic. In fact, he has two! And if Johnny agrees, he’ll draw up the contracts at once. The first one is immediate. It’s a western with John Wayne… ‘Guitar City’. The story of a boarder at a Swiss school, who is going to rejoin her father in Mexico, during the era of pioneers… a costume role! I am enthusiastic about the idea. The second project will take more time: a musical comedy about the life of Coco Chanel.
- ‘What did you say, Johnny?’
- ‘That’s we’ll talk about it some more. I’ve signed your contract for the show with Danny Kaye. So we’ll return in December.’
- ‘And me too!’ Says François. ‘I don’t want to miss this!’
In the meantime, I’m going to sing at the Daisy Club, which will make a change from Huntsville. Here there are only six hundred members, who all pay a very high membership rate and who are all, more or less, friends of Pasternak and belong to the world of cinema or vaudeville. His famous ‘chicks’ are therefore in the room: Frank Sinatra, for whom the Daisy Club is a sort of headquarters, Sammy Davis Junior, Dean Martin… the cabaret is magnificent, covered in Saint-Gobain mirrors. Frédéric Loew, the grandson of Adolf Zukor, the pioneer of Hollywood, is the presenter. I am less afraid than I was before the convicts. Here they are professional performers, they know this art.
- ‘Work the hardest you’ve ever worked!’ Johnny says to me before rejoining his wife in the auditorium.
When I hear ‘encore!’, I know that I gave it all I have! But what amazes me most is that in such a Hollywoodian place, I hear people whistling through their fingers… exactly like in Huntsville!
The next day, Johnny is in an excellent humour. A very famous reporter, Mike Connolly, has written an article, printed, it is said, in four hundred newspapers around the country…
‘Now I know why Danny Kaye and Andy Williams have signed with this French firestorm, whose initials are the same as those of Marilyn Monroe. I also understand why she is paid an extremely high fee, though only a year ago she was earning seven dollars glueing envelopes in a factory in her province. Mireille Mathieu, also, is a phenomenon.’
Next morning, Pierre Grelot, Pasternak’s secretary, tells us that Joe wants to show me privately the film ‘My Fair Lady’. Johnny is a little surprised: it is over ten years old.
- ‘Yes, but… you’re going to meet the author, not only of the film script, but also of the musical, Jay Lerner, and Joe prefers Mireille to have seen his work.’
Johnny knows it by heart, François too, naturally. Auntie and I are the only ones who are completely ignorant. So here we are in the office on Pelagio Road. Joe takes us to the viewing room. It’s funny, seeing a film without an audience around you: you almost don’t dare laugh! The bother, of course, is that it will be in English. Pierre, very kindly, undertakes the chore of explaining the plot to the two poor stupid Frenchwomen. I adore it. Audrey Hepburn is very pretty… and she sings so well!
- ‘It’s not her singing! She was dubbed. Onstage Julie Andrews played the role, but when it came to filming it, it was thought that she wouldn’t make a film-star.’
My heart freezes. It seems diabolical to me. So, it is the story of Mario Lanza, which Joe told us on our last voyage, repeating itself: someone’s voice being attributed to someone else’s body. But then… if I don’t act well… what would stop them giving ‘my’ voice to another actress? Pierre protests. My case is very different: Joe is playing the card of a new singer. There is no question of any manipulation! He reassures me. I have both the appearance and the voice necessary. I am ‘his’ find, as Deanna Durbin was in her time.
- ‘And who did she become?’
- ‘No one. She’s married. She lives in France.’
‘No one’… It sends shivers down my spine. She lives under the name of her husband, thinks Pierre, doubtlessly happy, but it’s all over with regard to her career.
- ‘But she is able not to sing any more?’
- ‘Without a doubt.’
I think that I never could… I must sing. Perhaps Deanna still sings incognito, in a parish church choir?
I am again distracted by the story of ‘My Fair Lady’, which enchants me:
- ‘But it’s me,’ I say, ‘it’s absolutely me! It’s me and Johnny! Johnny is obliged to teach me everything, even to articulate, like Eliza! I would love to play this role. I wouldn’t have to do anything, just walk into it, especially since I love costumes and hats! It’s really me!’
Pierre calms me. Of course. If it amuses me, I can play it one day, since it is continually refilmed, here or there. But he believes that it’s not this proposition Jay Lerner is going to put to me: he wishes me to play Gigi in a musical on Broadway.
Gigi? I don’t dare tell him that I don’t know who he means.
In the evening, Johnny speaks with me about it.
- ‘You can play Gigi, of course. It’s a role made for you, but…’
- ‘But I’ve called M. Lerner. I told him that you don’t know a word of English. That to perform on Broadway, you must have several more years of experience… to possess the language fully. In cinema, things are different and you could try your strength if you work hard… they can easily do retakes. And again… I am not sure you can do it. In theatre, it’s too obvious: you don’t know the ways of the stage, you don’t have a comedian’s training, and you don’t know the language. There are too many factors against the idea!’
I bow my head.
However, in Hollywood they say the same thing about ideas as they say about girls in our parts: lose one, and you will find ten more… there is a fantastic American film which everyone is talking about, it’s called ‘Does Paris speak?’, and François is very knowledgeable when the conversation comes around to it. Based on the book by Lapierre and Collins, it tells of the 1944 liberation of Paris.
The Americans had invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in it, mainly because the director, Réné Clément, is known for his perfectionism and didn’t want to leave out or neglect anything. François has a great admiration for the man, who helped him when he was setting out:
- ‘He’s an unequalled technician,’ he says, ‘and it was he who gave me my first lesson in editing.’
When the producers had decided to do ‘a film about the film’, a documentary about this gigantic shoot, it was naturally François who was charged with it. At a dinner given by Pasternak, he told us how, while Malraux had decided to show Paris in white colours, Clément had at once hastened to darken it! He had even tried to remove the TV antennas bristling on the rooftops everywhere!
- ‘I had great fun,’ he said, ‘when we filmed the German tanks in the place de la Concorde, in front of the flabbergasted tourists, who had no idea what was going on!'
François has many anecdotes to recount; for example, how Yves Montand, while filming a tragic scene in which he dies as his tank explodes, stopped suddenly and declared: ‘I can’t shoot any more today, I’ve hurt my finger!’
The cast is a mix of French and American actors, with Belmondo, Delon, Charles Boyer, Leslie Caron, Simone Signoret and Claude Dauphin, but also with Kirk Douglas, Glen Ford, Orson Wells… to the music of Maurice Jarre. This last has just finished doing the soundtrack, and is present at the dinner. It’s here that the idea comes to him: why don’t I record two of the film’s songs?
After he wrote the music for ‘The Longest Day’, Jarre became a Hollywood star. And he didn’t stop there. He has done ‘Lawrence of Arabia’, ’The Train’, ‘The Possessed’, ‘The Professionals’… they say that he has money pouring in, but I only know that I find him as nice and funny as our Popaul. The film comes out in Paris on October the 24th. I panic. It’s next week! He reassures me: the song he wants me to sing is a very simple waltz. He plays it to me:
Que l’on touche à la liberté
Et Paris se met en colère
Et Paris commence à gronder
Et le lendemain c’est la guerre…
What a lovely song. He tells me that he’s returning to Paris at the same time as us and that he’ll teach it to me on the plane…
And in truth, the moment he straps himself into the seat next to me, he begins to hum ‘Et Paris se met en colère’. But I am very tired. All these extraordinary events I have witnessed are whirling around it my head; the images flow one into another: the billionaire who stares while Chevalier presents me as his young fiancée, looking like an elderly marchioness, mouth open, fiddling with her pearl necklace; M. Marcus as he invites me to sing at the opera in Dallas; the caged black sax player in Huntsville; Joe leading me by the hand along the corridors of the MGM studios and presenting me to all those we meet as ‘my little star…’, Lily Pons smiling at me as I come onstage at the Sheraton, a little girl in a royal blue velvet dress, with a great bow in her hair, shyly presenting me with a bouquet of flowers, the face of Francis Lai turning green and the green cigarette of the director of the prison… so many images, faces, voices sounding in my ear… no, really, I can’t sing. I am too tired…
But here, right in the plane, Francis takes up his accordion and plays ‘Paris en colère’, Maurice Jarre beats out the tempo; one by one, our friends take up the chorus, the passengers join in… which proves that the song is a good one, that it is easily recalled. How can I resist? An American with a great bass voice and a Southern accent dominates the choir, making the stewardesses smile…
- ‘Come on, Mimi!’
Jarre spoon-feeds me each couplet… the plane itself has become nothing but a waltz.
When we arrive in Orly, I know it off by heart.
There is nothing else to do but record it the next day…
The disc has to be done in record time. It’s horrible, this race against the clock; especially when behind the glass of the cutting cabin sits the formidable uncle Jo, a perfectionist who doesn’t let me get away with even the tiniest mistake. Luckily, there is nothing like learning a song than singing it in a choir. The session on board the Air France Boeing had been an excellent rehearsal. Moreover, it’s not one song we’re recording, but two, the second on what I always call the ‘reverse’ of a single, and which Johnny always corrects, in professional terms, to ‘side B’. Must the passengers of the New York – Paris flight know it better than I? It is even more lovely than ‘Paris en colère’, although the tempo is different:
Soldats sans armes, soldats sans visage
Ils vivrent dans l’ombre
Sans dire leur nom
Ils se battaient sans pitié, sans merci
Ils se battaient, ils se battaient, ils se battaient…
Because I don’t have time to go to Avignon, I sing it over the phone. I feel how emotional Papa is on the other end:
- ‘My baby… my baby… you’ll make more than one of them cry…!’
The phone changes hands.
- ‘Hello! Mama!… he didn’t tell me whether he liked it?’
- ‘You know how your father gets when this war is spoken of…’ (and, in a loud voice), ‘do excuse him, he needs to blow his nose, he has a cold!’
The premiere of ‘Does Paris speak?’ is one of those events which only Georges Cravenne and Paris are able to hold. It’s my first gala as a spectator, and I’m wearing my first premiere dress, long and white, a long blue velvet cloak used to cover it (I’m attached to it, the colour of the dragonflies of my childhood…). Maurice Jarre explains to me that Cravenne has used the same formula which sealed the success of ‘The Longest Day’: the showing of the film in the hall of the Palais de Chaillot, followed by supper in the salon, where one whole wall is in fact a window with a view on the Eiffel Tower. On the first storey of the Tower they had hung a great three-colour banner. Against the white part of it stood out a small silhouette: that of Piaf, whose voice, transmitted over the entire esplanade, penetrated to the very heart of the guests in the Palais. I imagine her, the miniature woman with a giant’s voice…
- ‘How lucky, Maurice, to have seen it!’
But this evening, everything is just as exceptional. I shed all the tears I possess during the film…
- ‘My God, Mireille! Your make-up’s all gone! And it’s swarming with photographers!’
Nicole Stark takes me to touch up, before making our way to the table of Robert Laffont, editor of the book by Lapierre and Collins (And I could never have imagined that he would one day become the editor of mine!), in the dining hall. We had barely sat down when a silhouette appears opposite: that of Yves Montand.
His moving voice makes me listen, to one of the most beautiful songs I know. ‘Le chant des partisans’:
Ami, entends-tu le vol noir des corbeaux sur nos plaines?
Ami, entends-tu les cris sourds du pays qu’on enchaîne?
The grand finale of the evening is a firework display. Aunt Irène is filled with wonder.
And then come the smiles, the embracing, the ‘how lovely you look!’, the compliments, the congratulations…
- ‘You have a dream life,’ Auntie says to me. ‘Do you know it?’
Yes, of course. And yet, something is missing, a very small thing which pinches my heart: I haven’t sung this evening.
- ‘Hello, Mimi? It’s Nadine. M. Stark has received the English version of ‘Mon credo’. You can come to collect it from the office…’
- ‘But how am I going to learn it if I don’t know any English?’
- ‘It’s written phonetically, you see. The way you need to pronounce it.’
Ah, good! Nadine is on Avenue de Wagram, between three ringing phones. She tells me to look at the music on the desk. I walk up to it. Ma-eye cri-i-do. That must be it. It interests me much less than a huge album lying nearby, entitled ‘Olympia, September 66’. I open it randomly and come across a cutting from ‘Le Monde’:
‘To me, Mireille Mathieu is a voice – Piaf’s – and numbers: 19 years, 13 brothers and sisters, 30 000 kilometres on tour, 14 hours of work per day, 1 million singles in 6 months, 7 kilos lost in 5 weeks, 3 fainting fits in 8 days, blood pressure 6.5, which is extremely low. Those who are better informed than I find a link between such a great success and such poor health. They speak of overwork, of the exploitation of a new idol by those surrounding her. Having seen her onstage, I fear, alas, that she is only experiencing the first of troubles yet to come. This pretty doll with porcelain cheeks who says ‘I love you’ has yet much to learn…’
Ah yes! I remember that Johnny spoke to me of a ‘porcelain doll’. And patati and patata, as we used to say in school when we were bored with the lesson.
‘…However much you splash about the water in a bath, you will never be able to imitate waves, because they come from the deep, not from the surface. And all the lessons in singing, in music theory, in diction, in bearing, cannot replace the lessons of life. Mireille Mathieu can do nothing about it, of course. Her manager ought to have thought about accustoming her to happiness or to grief. It will permit her, perhaps, to catch up, one day, to the miniature and giant shadow after which she runs…’
Very well, so little Mimi – there are moments when, more and more frequently, I refer to myself in the third person – isn’t liked by ‘Le Monde’ (‘The World’). But the world without a capital letter likes her very well. America loves her, does it not… perhaps it’s time to learn Ma-eye cri-i-do… I take up the sheet once more when I notice, in the following cutting, and still in ‘Le Monde’, a ‘Letter from Johnny Stark’ in big capitals, and then in smaller case: ‘the truth according to him’.
Let us see what uncle Jo could have replied to them:
‘Edith Piaf is unique and irreplaceable. A comparison with a young girl who only has eight months of training doesn’t seem to me very realistic. I spend my time shouting from the rooftops that Mireille Mathieu is a débutante… I want to ask what exactly it is you mean by advising me to teach Mireille Mathieu about grief? Can it be that you’re seriously thinking of making this child live through the pathetic hell which was the sad fate of Edith Piaf? Come now, it cannot be anything but a misunderstanding.
‘However it is, Mireille Mathieu will never walk on the shards of Madame Piaf, as she has neither the aspiration to nor the temperament for it. Her side must be taken in this. Mireille Mathieu will be Mireille Mathieu. The fruit is still green, I agree with you on that the more readily because I do nothing but say it and repeat it, but it’s no one’s fault if the public has taken to her a little bit before the full maturity of her talent.
‘… The people like Mireille Mathieu perhaps even more for what she will give them than for what she is giving them now, with the deep subtle love of the heart which knows no reason.’
Bravo! He is fearsome my uncle Jo. Without him, among all these people, the poor Mimi would have died before she could have been born. Ah! There is another little paragraph, the response to the response: it never ends:
‘… it is understandable that Johnny Stark, loyal to the responsibility he has undertaken, should calmly deny any resemblance between Mireille Mathieu and Edith Piaf. Alas! Despite his spirited and sharp response, the fact remains that this resemblance was immediately perceived and questioned by all amateur music-lovers.’
I am in a high temper. If only ‘Le Monde’ had asked his opinion of Maurice Chevalier. His is a professional opinion, and they should have sought it, rather than that of amateurs. I slam the album shut. I will be better received in America.
Uncle Jo finds me in the middle of calmly committing Ma-eye cri-i-do to memory. I hug him so vigorously that he looks surprised:
- ‘What’s up with you?’
- ‘Nothing. I love you very much. Without you I wouldn’t be a nobody. That could almost be put into a song!’
- ‘Yes, but I’d prefer you to say: I WOULD be nobody.’
- ‘But that’s a syllable too few.’
That’s when I notice that he has been followed by a young man. He is presented to me:
- ‘Gérard Majax. He’s going on tour with you.’
He’s very nice. I can see it at once.
- ‘Do you sing?’
- ‘No. I’m a manipulator.’
- ‘You work with mikes, with lighting apparatus?’
- ‘Not so much with the machines as with the effects…’
- ‘He’s a magician,’ says Johnny.
- ‘A magician!’ (I am dazzled in advance). ‘So you pull little white rabbits out of hats?’
- ‘If the event demands it… I can. But it would be rather risky on this pretty carpet. It would be better for me to help Johnny make ends meet… particularly since you’re so providential, look!’
He brushes his hand against my ear and hop! he pulls a coin from behind it, hop! another from under my arm, from the hem of my skirt, from my hair… I am completely astonished. He places the coins on the table: they are genuine.
- ‘But… where did you get all this money from?’
Johnny is doubled over with laughter: he adores Majax. It won’t be long before I follow his example… ah! it will be merry, this tour with him! I forget to think of America. But Johnny doesn’t:
- ‘Oh! Gérard… you speak English very well, don’t you… you can help us, then. I’m not going to hire a tutor for Mademoiselle Mathieu for the duration of the tour. But I want to record ‘Mon credo’ in New York the following month. Could you work with her at the language during your spare hours?’
I study my new teacher. Black hair, curling slightly, mischievous eyes, and his hands… ah! his hands!
- ‘I have them from my mother,’ he says. ‘She’s a pianist.’
- ‘And your father?
- ‘A tailor.’
That’s what it is: The agility of the needle and the swiftness of the keyboard. Skill with scissors, too: he can do extraordinary things, cutting a bit of paper. Also, he always carries a deck of cards with him in his pockets.
- ‘I know two hundred ways of cheating at cards!’ He says.
- ‘I won’t never play with you!’
- ‘I WILL never play,’ Johnny corrects me, and adds:
- ‘You see, Gérard, you can also give her lessons in French!’
When he is gone, Johnny asks me how I liked him:
- ‘Tremendously! But it’ll bore him, having to give me lessons…’
- ‘Not at all. He was going to become a primary school teacher.’
- ‘How did he become a magician?’
- ‘By showing tricks to his friends at school.’
- ‘Really? A bit like me, all in all.’
- ‘What do you mean, like you?’
- ‘Well, it was by singing to my girlfriends that.. voila!’
- ‘The big difference between you is that he has finished an educational course and has a degree in psychology, and he always completes his sentences, so you can understand what he’s saying!’
Majax becomes the joy of the entire tour. Standing in the wings, I don’t let up watching him do his routine, hoping to catch him out. But, the very moment when I think I’m going to get it at last… pfffft! the trick is successfully completed and he bows to the audience.
What I like most of all is when, after the performance, he shows us all his tricks in the restaurant, in front of our noses. And still we can’t understand how he does it… it doesn’t matter what it is: my red stick, Auntie’s earring, the handkerchief of the young choirboy, Danièle Licari’s (who has a very lovely voice: it was she who dubbed Catherine Deneuve in ‘Les Parapluies de Cherbourg’, or ‘The Umbrellas of Cherbourg’) or that of her friend, Jackie Castan. He makes our Piccolo howl with laughter… My Popaul and Francis aren’t unfortunately, with us. I say unfortunately because I don’t much like changing companions, but they weren’t free, and they were replaced by Armand Motta and five musicians. This winter tour is as merry as though it were spring outside. We sing in a choir with two first-class singers, Michel Orso and Guy Bontempelli, and the presenter Michel Gaillard; we mess around with the Trotter brothers, who are American puppeteers. They are also capable of being my teachers, but… Majax is intrigued by this block I seem to have when trying to speak English.
- ‘What’s happening to you? You aren’t scared with us?’
- ‘Well? What’s stopping you?’
- ‘I don’t know…’
Apart from these laborious lessons, we have good fun… Bordeaux, Toulouse, Montpellier, Marseilles… Ah! Marseilles! It’s almost Avignon! The entire family has come down here, taking up three rows for them and some friends. It will be a great night!
- ‘Well! Johnny, won’t it be great tonight? You can see that all the Mathieus are in the hall!’
His response is very puzzling.
- ‘Yes, but does that mean that you don’t try your hardest when the Mathieus aren’t here? You would do better to think a little less about your family and a little more of the public. And your English?’
I employ evasive action.
- ‘She has problems,’ says Majax.
- ‘With pronunciation?’
- ‘As well, but especially with the text.’
He tries to explain it psychologically:
- ‘I wonder if, subconsciously, English doesn’t represent to her a barrier, even a separation from her family…’
Between cities, there are occasional returns to Paris for me. Sometimes it’s for a show with Sacha Distel on which we sing ‘Un homme, une femme’ in a duet; once it’s for a meeting with Maurice Chevalier, on which we agreed back in New York: I’m going to help him distribute sweets to the old people of his ‘village’, Ménilmontant. The day has arrived. I’ve taken an overnight train after the performance in Lyons… and here I am in the Rue des Pyrénées, playing the angelic assistant of Father Christmas – the marvellous Maurice, not long returned from America, where he didn’t stop giving recitals for a moment… he tells me that on the plane back home, he travelled with Sagan, Chazot, Aznavour and his ‘pretty Swede’:
- ‘He is so in love that he didn’t notice me the slightest bit! The most friendly, which surprised me, turned out to be Chazot; he seated himself next to me and paid me many compliments, although he has the reputation of having a cruel wit. But he was so generous that, upon me having remarked that he had a nice tie-pin, he gave it to me! I didn’t know where to put my face.’
And as his secretary, François Vals, and Félix Paquet have brought more boxes of chocolate and conserves, we continue to give them out.
- ‘The luck we have, Mireille, in being in this profession! We rub shoulders with the greatest but also with the humblest… look at them.’
They are like wondering children, these two hundred poor aged, so fragile, so deprived…
- ‘Never leave this profession, Mimi! I don’t agree with Garbo. If the public love you, they won’t mind watching you grow older. She ought to have gone on to the end, with and for her audience. It is better, more courageous, than submitting to the fear of losing one’s crown…’
- ‘I promise you. I’ll never stop singing.’
And I rush with Auntie to make the train so that I can sing the same evening in Lyons.
Another short round trip is made for a private soiree, held by the ambassador Hervé Alphand: present are Pierre Cardin, the Prime Minister Georges Pompidou and his wife Claude, the writer Romain Gary and his very pretty and delightful spouse, Jean Seberg. She fascinates me for a very good reason: she filmed ‘Jeanne d’Arc’. My favourite heroine! I haven’t seen the film, but I can imagine it. During the course of the soiree, she only makes a slight allusion to the hell that filming meant to her, when she was only nineteen years old. ‘It was hard, too hard… it has marked me for life…’ She doesn’t have eyes for anyone but Romain Gary, and he for her. Therefore I don’t dare question her about ‘Jeanne d’Arc’; but when she finds out that I must return to Hollywood, with film offers on the horizon, she smiles slightly and says to me simply: ‘Good luck and much courage!…’
The tour will end just before three music showcase performances in Olympia, organised by Elle and Europe 1. So I must sing my ten songs three times, among them ‘Géant’:
Un homme est venu dans le grand désert hurlant
Comme un grain de blé porté par le vent…
What gives me pleasure is that most of them are already so well settled in the ear of the public that they applaud as soon as the introduction is played… even for ‘Paris en colère’, the newest release.
On the night, Fernand Raynaud comes up to me to hug me and to say:
- ‘I admire you tremendously. Next to you, I’m just an apprentice!’
He is so kind and modest… at 7:10 p.m. I leave Olympia and I only just have enough time to fly to the charity organised by Mme Claude Pompidou. I feel truly minuscule next to her… but, after the dinner at the ambassador’s, her blue eyes had put me at my ease. She says she doesn’t know how to thank me, as she knows that I’m taking the plane to Marseilles in just a few hours. We fly off at 10:30 with François Reichenbach and his team. He needs a few more shots of the panorama in Avignon to complete his film, ‘The Fairytale of Mireille Mathieu’, scheduled for release at the end of the year. In other words, in fourteen days… there’s even more: the day after tomorrow, François is accompanying us to Los Angeles because he also wants to shoot the show with Danny Kaye, which will occur on the nineteenth… we are living on the go. Auntie and Nadine are doing the packing. This year’s-end trip to America is carried out in terrible haste. Barclay returns with us, and Johnny brings not only Nicole but Vincence as well. And, in the middle of this hubbub, I receive a letter from Johnny which dumps be right back on the ground. It is dated the 15th of December 1966 (during the showcase performances). It is severe:
‘My dear Mireille,
‘I don’t want the occurrence of sending you a reproachful letter at the end of the year to become a habit, but, nonetheless, it is necessary to reiterate what is in your interest.
‘You see, I’m not very satisfied with the way certain elements of your tour developed, and it seems to me necessary to introduce at once the imperative corrections. The competition will profit from the least of your faults, which, besides, is the logical way of things.
‘First of all, you don’t seem to believe in what you sing anymore, your interpretation lacks feeling dreadfully, and you’re no longer at all convincing. It’s very obvious, and a serious problem.
‘Next, far from improving, your diction is going from bad to worse. Remember yourself the trouble I had last week in getting you to pronounce the name of Charles Aznavour correctly.
‘I must also say to you that you often sing out of tune and you must look over your stage conduct. Finally, you are as fresh as a rose, but you put on so much make-up, so badly (especially during the day), that you look like an old lady in front of the reporters.
‘It’s going to be necessary to start from scratch. You must recover yourself, and I’m certain that you will make the necessary efforts to correct these shortcomings.
‘I don’t doubt for a second your enormous good will and intention, but it is my job to point out to you how easy it is to stray from the difficult path to success.
‘Have courage, my little Mireille, and one day, when everything is perfect and you are the greatest of them all, I will cease to scold and worry you like a sheep-dog.
‘I hug you tightly.
I am appalled. For several weeks I had hada strong feeling that Johnny wasn’t very happy, but… Auntie, who read the letter before me, found me in tears.
- ‘Is it true that I sing out of tune, that I look like an old woman, that no one can understand what I say, that I’m not longer convincing…?’
- ‘You know Johnny… he is a Southerner like us, he always exaggerates a little. But… it’s true that you were not as good this time round, you gave the impression that you were thinking of other things…’
It’s unjust. I often think of Grandmama, who died without seeing me again… how could they say that I lack feeling, when my heart often overflows…
- ‘Perhaps,’ says Auntie. ‘But we don’t always manage to express that which we feel… that is what I think he wanted to say… about the make-up, he wasn’t at all wrong either… we tell you often that you put too much on. And it’s true that it ages a face. But you’re stubborn… it’s also true that you always stumble over certain words…’
Thus, Auntie admits that uncle Jo is right.
- ‘After us, it is he who loves you the most. And when you love, you say the truth. You don’t want him to lie to you, do you? You have heard many compliments lately. Compliments aren’t always true.’
- ‘Neither are reproaches!’
- ‘You know well that they are… partly.’
- ‘But I have too many things to think of at the same time! How to behave at table, how to walk, how to bow, speak correct French when I don’t know any longer which is correct and which isn’t, articulate properly, train my voice, learn English, learn new songs, stay in tune, not laugh with my mouth wide open, not eat too much, learn to dance, not forget to breathe, sleep a lot when it’s impossible to fall asleep because you’re going over all this stuff in your head, and just when you have a headache, you must start again and again…! It’s torture!’
Auntie lets me storm and cry. And when I’m slightly calmer:
- ‘You can always return to the factory…’
- ‘It went bankrupt!’
- ‘You can find another. In France, there are more factories than Olympias. Think about this on the plane.’
Of course, there is no need. I know, deep, deep down inside myself, that I will never abandon my calling.
My life resembles the sky above Avignon. Never black for long, there are bright intervals and the sun always returns… before the storm. Which also returns as soon as it can, with renewed violence. But a great blow of mistral, just as violent, chases it off. And everything begins again!
We are once more in Los Angeles. In a studio, with Danny Kaye. He has the perpetual air of a little boy, in his short pants.
- ‘Do you know why my pants are too short?’ (Pierre Grelot translates for me). ‘Because then there is always someone who will ask: ‘But why do you wear such short pants?’ And that makes human relations much easier!’
He also has trainers which have the peculiar faculty of staying on his feet without any laces in them...
- ‘I have them made to measure with a little impression for each toe. Very important: the foot is the health of the head!’
And he taps himself joyfully on the skull. I sing two songs, one of which must be a real sketch with him. It’s a gentle love song, for which Jamblan wrote words on a scale which rises and falls very peacefully.
DO: En écoutant mon cœur chanter
RÉ: Je vous retrouve à mes côtés
MI: Me serrant très fort pour danser
FA: Guettant la nuit pour m’embrasser
SO: Murmurant des folies tout bas
LA: Ne pensant qu’à rire aux éclats
SI: Ou me faisant fermer les yeux
DO: Avec un frisson merveilleux…
DO: Me pressant doucement les doigts
SI: Comprenant mes secrets émois
LA: Prenant l’air d’une enfant gâtée
SO: Quand vous voulez tout emporter
FA: Et soudain les yeux éperdus
MI: Me rendant mon bonheur perdu
RÉ: Tout redevient réalité
DO: En écoutant mon cœur chanter…
Johnny has given me the sign to begin: with Paul Mauriat at the piano, having obtained permission to accompany me – a rarity, with the draconian music syndicates - I sing, unperturbable, while watching Danny Kaye, who responds to me in English without understanding a word of what I am saying to him… which ignorance is, of course, mutual. The effect must be astonishing, judging by the frequent bursts of laughter coming from the technicians. I don’t have to make much of an effort not to join them, since, in truth, I don’t understand a single word of the jokes Danny is cracking! The important thing is not to smile on seeing his grimaces…
- ‘You know, Mireille,’ Johnny said to me before the beginning of the rehearsal, ‘don’t be afraid of playing the role of a girl who doesn’t understand anything.’
- ‘That’s easy, Johnny, I really don’t understand anything!’
- ‘Above all, don’t move, keep singing no matter what happens, in the same soft tempo, and, most importantly, DO NOT LAUGH!’
- ‘Yes, Johnny.’
I like this song. It is different from all my other ones. It has a disarming simplicity. And, I think, I am disarmed as well, faced by a Danny who begins by speaking to me softly, and then gets excited, carried away, and perhaps finishes by insulting me… try puzzle it out!
The studio rings to the sound of applause and wild laughter, all the louder for having been contained.
Danny is beside himself.
- ‘She is a revelation…!’
He is so enthusiastic that he invites us to dinner! In a state of euphoria, we arrive at his house, situated in Beverly Hills, of course, as your house must be if you are a performer in Hollywood. It is almost exactly like that of Joe Pasternak (who is with us, by the way). It’s the same colonial style, a park surrounding a house with a swimming pool.
Danny’s house has a peculiarity not found in many others: it has two kitchens. One is an immense American one, where it is a real pleasure to eat… and another, no less enormous… is a Chinese one. Because Danny is a fan of gastronomy, himself a cook as well, collector and inventor of recipes!
- ‘And yet,’ he says, ‘I eat very little… but I taste much! Which one would you like to try?’
Naturally, we vote for the Chinese. And here we are dumbfounded, watching him create. He has at his disposal two gigantic ovens and an old Chinese cook who, he says, is eighty-three years old, which is quite possible since she has a small face like a baked apple, with two cracks for eyes. And a third for her mouth! The Chinese lady is in fact his assistant: he gives commands and she peels garlic, onions and I don’t know what other ingredients. He tells us that, because of the Chinese colony in California, in this state there are the best stores with the rarest ingredients, ‘like in Peking’!
We have finished rehearsal at about 8 o’clock, but we must have patience in waiting for our dinner. It is already 10 p.m. and the Chinese lady is still peeling: though she does it at an extraordinary speed, the moment she is done, Danny seizes what he needs from her, and with a great variety of gestures which make us double up with laughter, prepares the famous food of which it is said that, after (or before, according to the latitude) French cuisine, it is the best. While he works, Danny tells us that he is friendly with the greatest chefs of France. Johnny can easily support the conversation in this area. Food is also his passion. Their friends are the same: Bocuse, Troisgros, Haeberlin, Oliver… so we see Danny and uncle Jo exchange the ‘tricks’ borrowed from the stars of the oven.
- ‘I can receive you all year, and never serve you the same dish!’
His wife Sylvia lets him cook. She doesn’t bother about casseroles, her hand holds a pen more often than a spoon: she writes his sketches for him. Among others, she is the author of the one which made Samuel Goldwyn choke with laughter and sign Danny on the spot: beginning with Tchaikovsky, he rattled off the names of fifty-six Russian composers in thirty-six seconds!
To keep us occupied, he opens a bottle of champagne, pretending to be a clumsy waiter and making us fear that at any moment he will drop the bottle…
Suddenly he says to me:
- ‘Mireille, you live in Avignon, don’t you? Would you like to call your parents?’
- ‘They don’t have a telephone… I usually call the drug store next door…’
This news appears to delight him. He adores drug stores!
- ‘But it’s too late. They must all be asleep at this hour.’
- ‘But no, come, what about the time difference!’
And there, on the other end of the line, is Croix-des-Oiseaux. I ask the shop assistant if she would please go find my papa… we wait about seven or eight minutes, during which Danny chats in pseudo-French with the poor shopkeeper. Finally:
- ‘Here we are, M. Mathieu!’
- ‘Hello, Papa? I’m with Danny Kaye!’
- ‘Who is that?’
I am slightly embarrassed in giving the explanation.
- ‘He is a very big cinema star, he’s very funny…’
- ‘Like Fernandel?’
- ‘No. Not really.’
- ‘Then ask him, do they know of Fernandel in America?’
This is translated. He responds that he knows a lot about him; he often goes to France, he knows Fernandel and bouillabaisse, two things very French; another translation ensues.
- ‘And we drink to your health, Papa. How is Mama? It must be showing now.’ And I add, for the benefit of M. Danny Kaye, ‘I’m awaiting a little brother!’
A translation and a new round of champagne for Mama’s health. Danny has inherited the custom of emptying his glass at one go from his Russian ancestors, but I’m not used to drinking at all. Johnny looks at me pointedly, which I don’t notice, and Auntie is too dazzled to try and bring me to my senses. I feel so cosy in this kitchen… Danny says abruptly:
- ‘Do you know Simone Signoret?’
- ‘Only her name…’
And at once he calls Simone Signoret, right now also in Hollywood, where she is regarded extraordinarily highly. He asks her to come to dinner and assures us she’ll come. And in the meantime, champagne!
- ‘Mireille, you know, tomorrow there is a show you need to be on… you need sleep. It’s very important for you,’ Johnny says to me in a quiet voice.
- ‘Oh! Let’s stay a little while more… and besides, I’m hungry!’
When Simone Signoret arrives, it is 2 a.m. As soon as she’s there, the atmosphere changes. She monopolises all the attention, being at once surly and enchanting. She speaks American English admirably well, and it’s Danny’s turn to laugh and laugh… the Chinese cook finally serves us an exquisitely prepared meal. I am certain that the Chinese don’t drink champagne at dinner, but Danny continues opening bottles… we must toast to our show, to Simone’s latest film (‘with this one, I am sure of not getting an Oscar!’), to Pasternak’s next one, and Joe profits by taking this opportunity to speak of his production with John Wayne, and… Mireille Mathieu.
- ‘So you want to make a career in America?’ She asks me.
- ‘…yes, Madame.’
She shakes her head.
- ‘I wish you much pleasure in it…’
And she begins to speak of the Vietnam War. This wipes the smiles off people’s faces, especially that of Danny, who cannot forget the looks of the children he saw there… the soiree, begun joyfully, ends, for me, in a kind of anguish, especially since, in the car, Johnny says to me:
- ‘You drank. Much too much. To me, you are again a small child. You don’t have the endurance of a Danny or a Simone! And you need sleep. Sleep is what gives you the most strength, and it’s 4 a.m.! You need to be at the studio at one o’clock. You must get up at 11! And finally, you, Auntie, you should have known enough to have stopped her!’
When she wakes me, I feel very dull and sluggish. I tell myself that going through the hands of the studio’s hairdresser will wake me up: in fact the opposite occurs; I fall asleep under the comb.
Rehearsal. It doesn’t have last night’s happy atmosphere. Is it because the technicians aren’t influenced by the element of surprise? I belt my song out into silence. At the end of ‘En écoutant mon cœur chanter’ I hear Johnny’s dry voice:
- ‘The voice isn’t good. It’s not good at all.’
I know it. In the dressing-room, awaiting the show, Auntie worriedly prepares the infusion, and Johnny only comes in to say, ‘I beg you not to open your mouth before the start of the show.’
I know that I made a mistake. But how to resist this phenomenon Danny Kaye, so marvellous, full of charm, of mischievousness?
The program begins. At the end of the number he hugs me: ‘Fabulous!’ This reassures me, but not for long. The minute we’re in our bungalow, Johnny explodes:
- ‘If you had worked like you did yesterday at rehearsal, you would have knocked the United States to the ground! This afternoon, it was you who was knocked to the ground!’
- ‘Danny said to me…’
- ‘Danny said it because he’s kind! But the truth is that you went down! What is it you believe, Mireille? That America is just waiting you to conquer it? Pretty girls, girls who can sing, girls with talent, there are queues and queues of them in managers’ offices! Girls who are dying of hunger and poverty and want to end it. You, you have been resting on your laurels for some time…! But you’re fragile. Your voice is fragile. Your physical health is fragile. And unfortunately, I see that your spirit is also fragile!’
He slams the door, leaving to go find Nicole and Vincence in their bungalow.
I cry for the most part of the night, so much and so hard that the next morning, I am hoarse. Auntie prepares me something to gargle in my throat. It’s a dreadful, joyless day, one in which I must, in the frigid atmosphere of a studio, record ‘Mon credo’ in English… Listening in the earphones, I hear the rustling of the recording reel. Naturally, I start in the wrong place.
The phonetic text is before me, looking so absurd and meaningless… Johnny will stop me, it’s for certain. We start again, and again, and again. I look at the American technician, who shrugs his shoulders.
- ‘We can’t understand anything you’re saying.’
I know that I’m stammering. I feel it like a cramp inside me… spreading all over my body.
- ‘It’s useless to go on, Mireille.’
The apparatus in the cutting room is packed away. Auntie watches me, looking very pale. She hands me my coat, my handbag, and we exit without a word. Johnny says nothing to me in the car, except:
- ‘You won’t be doing the disc.’
That is then my second big failure. Only the movie remains… Joe Pasternak doesn’t seem influenced by what Johnny calls my ‘terrible performance’. For him, it was a success. Danny Kaye’s show had made his little star, as he persists in calling me, famous. He is giving a cocktail party again, and his enthusiastic reception makes me, if not forget, then at least put aside what had just happened. We arrive with Nicole and Vincence. And, the moment we cross the threshold, Joe cries for everyone to hear:
- ‘Voila my little star!’
He stops the first waiter who walks past, asking me:
And I respond, because I think it’s polite, and because with him drinking vodka is held in great regard:
- ‘Yes, vodka!’
It’s strong, very strong. I don’t know what demon prompted me to take it. Is it to get over the distress which has followed me for two days, a sign of my folly and weakness, that I drink it? Joe, admiringly, hands me a second glass, which I empty as I had seen Danny Kaye do: in one swallow. Johnny sends me a murderous look, but I don’t see it. I don’t want to see it. On a subconscious level, there is perhaps an element of defiance. I don’t really know, to speak frankly. I drink because otherwise I probably wouldn’t have had the courage to stay. And impulsively I propose to Joe:
- ‘Would you like me to sing?’
And, completely losing my head, I begin to sing from my repertoire, one song after another…
The Americans in Hollywood adore these kinds of impulsive soirees, improvised and laid-back, where one drinks a lot, where one speaks little, where a certain extravagance stops one from being bored. My performance is met with joy and sweeps away all my complexes. I know I have gone mad, that I’ve lost all control, but it’s a way of forgetting the two preceding days. I forget who is present and where I am. I even sing songs that aren’t mine to sing. ‘Je chante… je chante soir et matin,’ and off we go with Charles Trenet! When I announce the ‘Marseillaise’, Auntie, horrified, drags me to the ladies’ room to splash cold water on my face…
I thought I had experienced the full extent of Johnny’s anger, but no. Nicole leads Vincence away to their bungalow, while in ours, he calls me all the names he can think of, up to ‘slut’.
- ‘You sang like a drunken slut! You don’t even know what you’re doing anymore! I’m not slapping you only because I’ve never yet hit a woman! But it’s over, Mireille. Do you understand what I’m saying? I’m letting you drop. I’ve already taken a great blow with Danny Kaye’s program. A second with a lost disc. As for your behaviour at Pasternak’s, well…!’
- ‘They seemed quite happy,’ I say in my most quiet voice, utterly sober.
- ‘But I certainly wasn’t! Your voice was completely off. And Hedda Hopper was sitting in a corner…!’
- ‘Is she a singer?’
He raises his hands to the sky:
- ‘No! She’s the most formidable gossip in Hollywood! She destroys reputations! I wanted to make you into a superstar! In two days, you’ve ruined a year’s work! Do you have any idea what I’ve risked for you? The abandonment of all my charges! Your royal lifestyle! And you behave like a slut!’
Auntie, extremely dismayed, tries to calm him:
- ‘Johnny! Don’t use that word! She’s really a sweet girl!’
- ‘There! A sweet girl from a sweet, deserving family… I made a mistake! Her voice misled me: I believed that the seed of a star was there! I believed that she was a second Liza Minelli! But Liza was born to show business. She has it in her blood, like Johnny. Children of the stage. Hallyday was practically born on it! He knows everything at once. When I say to him: ‘I don’t like this song as much…’, he immediately shows me another and goes onstage, without even needing a rehearsal! A genius!’
He seems suddenly disheartened, and that’s the worst thing of all. I think I prefer him to be angry.
- ‘It must be true,’ he says. ‘That it’s not her fault. It’s mine. Until now, I have led her by the hand. But my arms aren’t strong enough. I’m wrong, she’s not made for this profession. She’s made, like her mother, to have fourteen children…’
- ‘But that’s not true, Johnny!’
I can’t let him say that:
- ‘All my life, I’ve thought of nothing but singing. I’m not happy unless I sing. I couldn’t do anything else!’
And I flee to my room.
There is a long silence.
Auntie’s voice reaches my ears. She says to him that he can’t drop me now, that it would be too cruel, that he can’t be responsible for throwing back into my previous life:
- ‘She has made tremendous efforts to leave it. Perhaps because she wasn’t born to show biz… as you say. I don’t know what others are like, after all!’
I’ve never heard Auntie speak like this. Calmly, softly and clearly. She tells him again that this year had been especially hard for me: from day to day, I go through a hell of extreme emotions, of fans, detractors, triumphs and great pain.
- ‘Didn’t she sing, the night of her grandmother’s death, like a professional?’
Johnny recommences yelling… a little less fiercely. But is it professional not to be able to articulate a song in English, after six months of lessons? To spoil one’s career in the United States, upon which hung so many hopes…? Auntie says that she understands; she knows the investment: all the money the journeys, the lodgings, the wardrobe have cost. Johnny calms down slightly: it’s not a question of money! He has never lived for money! Money is made to circulate and to do a job. He has already had unsuccessful business ventures… but in Mireille’s case, it’s different, he invested himself, completely, with no going back. To the point of renouncing everything else:
- ‘You have to take into account that I am obliged to devote so much time to her that I almost never see my wife and child any more!’
His anger returns, fills him up:
- ‘If she continues like this, to drink, to go to bed late, to behave frivolously, in three months she won’t have a voice left. And without a voice, there will no longer be a Mireille Mathieu!’
Still calm, with an ocean’s supply of gentleness, Auntie responds that certainly, I was ‘a little tipsy’… because I didn’t know what alcohol was, that I accepted to be polite, but we had never drunk any at home!
- ‘She won’t do it again, I swear to you… Johnny, you cannot let her go. Not now, in any case. Not a few of hours before Christmas… you cannot do that to her.’
Another silence. And then:
- ‘So be it. I accord you a respite until the New Year.’
The door slams.
The next day, he speaks no more of it. Life goes on.
Johnny has decided to celebrate Christmas in Disneyland. I am delighted because last time I only saw this fairytale kingdom in passing, with barely enough time to take a few photos in front of the Castle of Sleeping Beauty…
One of the last ‘attractions’ built on demand was, if I’m not wrong, finished six years ago. We have to queue to see it. It means neither more nor less than a meeting with Mr. Lincoln. The crowd which gathers in the theatre has the impression of being in Washington’s Congress Hall. We are admitted, in groups of about two hundred, into a room furnished with graceful armchairs. The sight puts the public into such a state of meditation that I say to myself: ‘this man is their Jeanne of Arc.’
It’s like a hallucination. It seems as though he’s there in flesh and blood. He gets up from his armchair, faces us, looks at us, speaks to us…
- ‘What is he saying, Johnny?’
- ‘He speaks of faith, of God protecting the United States… It’s the text of one of his real speeches…’
He speaks, he lives, this president who died in 1865. (I read the plaque under his portrait as we came in.) The skin, the eyelashes, even the wrinkles are visible… I am amazed and frightened at the same time. What if one day there were no more shows except ones like this? With automatons instead of artists? Uncle Jo won’t have to worry about a glass of vodka too much, or about a loss of voice. Everything would be perfect, with no risk involved. I can’t forget the story told by Joe Pasternak, in which Mario Lanza sings in a film, with someone else’s body doing the acting. Why shouldn’t this body one day be that of an almost-perfect robot? I shiver at the thought of it.
For Vincence, the holidays continue in Hawaii. For me, this isn’t true at all, for, if we are here one more, it is for a Japanese television film. I must perform my ‘heroic feats’ again: I must climb into a canoe steered by a Hawaiian girl dressed essentially in only a flower garland, and navigate among the dolphins. Vincence, who is not in the least afraid of water, finds this ‘brilliant!’. I also have to fish for barracudas… I don’t know how, but I manage to catch ten of them… to the great joy of the Japanese cameraman, who is much more impressed by this, it seems to me, than by my singing.
Johnny hasn’t spoken ‘show-biz’ to me. I almost ask myself, whether, in his mind, he has already decided to drop me…
Now that we have returned to Los Angeles, it’s time to rehearse for Andy Williams’ show. Andy Williams is a crooner with a warm voice, adored by families because his repertoire includes all the most famous songs of Gershwin and Cole Porter, and all the traditional songs. His show is also an annual custom which no one wants to miss. Paul Mauriat has done the orchestration, and Andy, who has a very good ear, finds it superb (Paul Mauriat doesn’t yet know that he will make a brilliant career in the United States). Paul has made me work for an hour to warm up the voice as well as possible. I have stage fright. ‘Un homme, une femme’ and ‘Paris en colère’, two film songs… it ought to please them. The rehearsal begins. I have my eye on the clock. The thing is, I want to phone into Avignon to wish them a happy New Year. But on the deck around me everything is disorganised, the lights are being regulated, the last details are being seen to. Auntie, who is there with the infusion, says to me softly:
- ‘If I were you… I’d forget Avignon.’
- ‘But no, Auntie, that’s impossible!’
- ‘I should forget it… for the moment. Concentrate. If you have to try again twice, four times, six times, it will delay your communication even more.’
- ‘Then you do it, Auntie, tell them: I’m singing, but I’m thinking of them… the moment I’ve finished, I’ll call them.’
I imagine them: gathered at M. Colombe’s to watch television. Because, while I’m being directly transmitted here with Andy, I am shown in France on two channels, wishing everyone ‘a happy new year 1967’ on one, and appearing in Reichenbach’s film on the other.
‘Miss Ma-ti-ou’: that’s me, they’re calling. The lights come on. My nose glistens. I must reapply my foundation. It is 3 p.m. That would make it just before midnight in France…
We do eight retakes… 3:45… it’s almost one o’clock in the morning. Perhaps it will be easier with ‘Paris en colère’. Not really. The orchestra is rearranged… Johnny’s voice sounds from the cutting cabin:
- ‘We’re beginning again for you, Mireille: I want you to give it more force! It’s a war song, it’s not ‘La Dernière Valse’…’
I try again. With a little ‘click’: uncle Jo spoke to me as he used to. No, he hasn’t dropped me. Not even this time.
The rehearsal ends: it’s 4:30. I descend upon the telephone.
- ‘Hello? Mama?’
No. It’s Mme Colombe. They left, she tells me, a quarter of an hour ago. They waited, but... the children were tired, they were falling asleep in all the corners. After all, they’d been there since 9 p.m. to watch ‘The Fairytale of Mireille Mathieu’… it was a very long day for the little ones. They said, leaving, that tomorrow the drug store owners will be with their cousins, obviously, since it’s holiday time. The book shop next door will also be closed. But if I want to leave a message, she or her husband will gladly pass it on the next day.
- ‘Thank you, Madame Colombe. Please tell Mama that I wish her a beautiful little boy; and to Papa, lots of happiness and tombstones; to Matite, Christiane, and Marie-France, a good husband; to…’
- ‘Wait, I’m writing it down… to Marie-France too, a good husband?’
- ‘Yes. It’s not easy to say everything you want to say when you’re far away… if I mention them all, it will take too long. So, in general, lots of joy to everybody. And to you and M. Colombe also!’
- ‘The same for you, Mireille! You were cute on the set!’
It’s the first time that I haven’t wished them a good year to come. I promise myself that it will be the last: next year, in their new house, they will have a phone! That I swear. I grip my medallion with the Virgin etched on it in my hand. Papa had given it to me. I feel as though I’m being watched. I am no longer afraid of anything. I will continue. And Johnny too, with me. I swear it!
And it’s the turn of Los Angeles to sound midnight. Everyone exchanges embraces. There are cars hooting, fireworks, lights everywhere. Champagne. ‘Happy New Year’, says Mireille to uncle Jo, and uncle Jo replies ‘Happy New Year’, adding in a softer voice:
- ‘You can thank your Auntie. If she hadn’t been there, I would have let you go. Thank you and all my best wishes, Irène.’
She smiles, with her sweet modest air. For me, this year almost ended in a catastrophe. I am not sorry to see it off, despite all that it has brought me. I feel as though I have lived three lives in twelve months: that of little Mimi, the small daughter of the stonemason, in whose family new children appear almost every year; that of Mireille Mathieu, the new idol who aspires to conquering America, and that of Mireille, who goes from being one or the other of the first two, sometimes balancing on one foot, often with a blindfold over her eyes, as when she used to play hopscotch or hide-and-seek with her friends…
Paris. The crisis which we have gone through remains a secret. Nadine welcomes us back with a splendid smile and a file with press cuttings, requests for interviews and articles. This avalanche has been triggered by François Reichenbach’s film:
- ‘You cannot even imagine the impact! Here! Read ‘Le Nouveau Candide’! What a change in tone! Listen: ‘…Reichenbach has just offered her his prayer-stool for communion in the most secret of artistic and intellectual chapels’! And that’s nothing in comparison to this: here is a whole page which Edmonde Charles-Roux has devoted to her in ‘The Literary Figaro’!’
Johnny, uncle Jo, settles himself into his favourite armchair in our living room, like a great cat digesting a fat little mouse:
- ‘I knew what I was doing by placing you in the paws of that Lautrec of the camera… this will rid you of any heartache (and he reads): ‘The old public is dead, having fallen victim to television. What has this led to? The equality of the performer; we are at once witness and accomplice to him, to them all. Thanks to the small screen, we are introduced to what has been for so long a fenced-off, forbidden paradise. We become intimate with the celebrities. This woman, this young girl whom twenty thousand people are applauding, we have seen in haircurlers; surprised her in the back of a car, looking harassed; and her fatigue, her disorder has made her more familiar and closer to us. We share her fear and, in the glare of the spotlights, await with her the first thunder of applause. If the trial ends in triumph, the TV viewer had the right to assert that he has lived with this singer through a true fairytale.
‘This is what I thought as I watched the televised documentary which François Reichenbach has dedicated to Mireille Mathieu. Some people have blamed him for being interested in a debutante, whose talent and future seem so insecure. They forget that the small screen in the proper medium for presenting and assuring phenomena such as this one.
‘Will Mireille Mathieu last? Will she still be spoken of in three or four years? What does it matter! The main thing is the adventure her life is. And how can you not rebel against the slanderers who seem to take a perverted pleasure in always predicting the worst? A diligent debutante, looking like the street girls Poulbot painted, only well-washed, with apple-red cheeks and brilliant skin, with wide-set eyes, like a little bull from Camargeau, this girl is making an entrance, her way lit up before her, far from the sinister universe of ‘yeah, yeah’ music, who always projects her brave voice, sometimes sour and resembling a green grape, but nonetheless a voice that makes the sun rise, as they say in the poor quarter of Avignon where Mireille was born; and what do our slanderers do? This voice, they say, is stolen from Piaf, and she owes all her popularity to this theft. A comment all the more absurd if you consider that a voice is owned from birth by she who possesses it. Why doubt it? There is no lack of arguments for it, I know a great many of them.
‘In Avignon, in Croix-des-Oiseaux (written with a provincial accent, as Croix-aux-Zozos), they remember perfectly how Mireille sang as she worked in an envelope-making factory. She sang at school, she sang in church, she sang all day long. They knew this all the way to Pontet, where my mother lives.
‘’She sang in no other voice than her own since childhood,’ I was assured by Mme X, our long-time neighbour, who has been spellbound by the tale of Mireille Mathieu. At a little over fifty years old, this scrupulous housewife had discovered a new vocation. She is delirious with poetry. Her eyes, her hands she uses to find rhymes at the bottoms of cooking pots and underneath the beds. Then she goes out to a disreputable bar, where she is joined by a sombre young man in a dark shirt, who strums his guitar. She recites her songs to him, setting them to music. She speaks of ‘going up’ to Paris, and the feel of her imagined success send shivers through her whole body. Her husband doesn’t hide his anxiety. The success of the little Mathieu haunts the entire region.
‘Thus the story in which François Reichenbach makes us participate is not a banal one. By inviting us on the plane which will take the girl from Avignon to New York, he allows us to share in her surprises and adventures. But that isn’t the purpose of his commentary. What else does he reveal to us? The day to day existence of this young woman with the makings of a celebrity, fulfilling her dream career with a conscientious hand. Never the least weariness, never the smallest sign of discontent. Where are the stars of long ago? Where are the ones who, not so far back in time as to be forgotten, threw tantrums, were inaccurate, made me wait by their doors for an entire day in those times when I was a reporter? As even Piaf did in the hotel on the Rue de Penthièvre where she lived…
‘Mireille Mathieu knows what she owes to the magazines, to television. Everything, or almost everything. Therefore she is at their disposal. Upon her arrival in New York, when a photographer ordered her to go back up the stairs which she was descending, she obeyed him at once. Her professional devotion is unfailing; it’s evident from the moment she awakes, when she appears, before setting to work, clothed in a simple morning robe, made of flower-print cretonne… (it is a poem, this dressing-gown. The great ballerinas sometimes wore garments as disarming as this one at home). It is even more evident in the fact that the room next to hers is that of Johnny Stark, her Pygmalion, a strong favourite, with a physique resembling that of the bear-keepers which long ago could be encountered in Bohemia, a handsome man whom she follows everywhere and consults ceaselessly: ‘Johnny, am I ridiculous in this hat?… Johnny, what must I say to her, to Lily Pons?… Johnny, should I or shouldn’t I exchange a kiss with her?’; at which Johnny then yells from the next room: ‘Articulate properly, I can’t understand anything…’, and which Mireille meekly repeats, articulating. She has the sharp teeth of a carnivore and the mouth of a true singer. One of those mouths made to launch music higher, further, louder…
‘François Reichenbach explores with a magnifying glass the face of a debutante, herself well on the road of discovering that face, freeing herself gradually, successfully more often than not, of the manners, the moves, the style of Piaf. In the face of all the evidence, Mireille Mathieu does not feel distress. She doesn’t know misfortune or grief; as a little girl, she did not lack love, nor health, nor bread. It is this ‘anti-Piaf’ which we have awoken to. François Reichenbach shows her to us with her faults and her commuter’s spite, with what is natural to her and also with what she already owes to her Pygmalion. He leaves her illusions for us to see. She appears before us, completely unconscious of life: a child of the streets who is not yet sure of her capabilities, but who already rules, be it at her risk and peril.’’
A silence. Then Johnny:
- ‘A superb article. She writes well, this lady. What, Mireille?’
- ‘Oh yes! …she writes very well.’
I think that she has only made one mistake: in thinking that I know no pain… but, after all, no one will know it but me. It will remain a secret I will bury with me.
- ‘I would like to see it nonetheless, this film!’
- ‘You will see it tomorrow. François has kept the screening room ready for you.’
The next day arrives. That François, though… he has already left to return to Mexico! But his voice remains with us, commenting on the film.
- ‘At the beginning,’ he says, ‘I didn’t want to hear of it because I was afraid of betraying another singer… I went to the States as a witness. I had an impartial eye… I never knew whether she acted the clown or not: she is after all a great comic actress.’ (Here, I burst out laughing). ‘But I was won over by the simplicity of her heart. She is a child marked by a sacred spark.’ (And here, my eyes fill with tears). ‘…Her father said to me one evening in Avignon: ‘The eyes, the voice, the talent, come from my side. The rest is all thanks to her mother.’’ (That’s true, Papa!). ‘Her mother said: ‘At the start, there was a great emptiness in the house. But with the radio, the television, it was as though she was always with us.’ You must understand what it is, the Sports Palace in Montreal, what it is to sing before twenty thousand people who don’t know you, who remember only Edith Piaf. She arrived there, looking very small, almost minuscule. The next day, all Canada was buying her long-playing discs, twenty-five thousand of them. Absolutely unbelievable!… Little by little, during the making of the film, I learned to know her, to understand her idiosyncrasies, and she became natural to me.’ (Oh! He has filmed me in a shop where there was a green glass thing full of a blue liquid, and where the vendor said to me: ‘It is a measure of your deep feeling! You’ve won us all!’ And the liquid began to boil!… Oh! He also shot me wringing my hands before going onstage… Oh! but why do I set my feet so far apart as I walk, like Charlot!).
- ‘Well? How do you find yourself, Mireille?’
- ‘Clumsy. Not always. But sometimes.’
- ‘Exactly!’ Says uncle Jo.