Saint-Germain-des-Prés must have felt like the centre of the universe in the aftermath of the second World War. After years of deprivation, French youth exploded with energy, dancing the jitterbug and boogie-woogie in smoky cellar night clubs. American jazz, which had been banned under the occupation, was the soundtrack of the era, existentialism its philosophy.
Juliette Gréco lived so long it was hard to believe such a vibrant and familiar person, who gave her last concert in 2016 at the age of 89, had really hung out with celebrities long since consigned to history. When Gréco died in her sleep on September 23rd, it felt like the death knell of 20th-century French culture.
Gréco was the muse of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, the link between often impenetrable intellectuals and popular song.
She met Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir for the first time at the bar of the Hotel Montana, discussed philosophy at the Rhumerie with Albert Camus. Maurice Merleau-Ponty, another philosopher who Gréco considered a surrogate father, drank with her at the bar of the Hotel du Pont-Royal.
Gréco saw her own father, a Corsican police commissioner, only three times. She wrote of her mother in her memoir, Je suis faite comme ça (I’m made that way): “My whole childhood I tried to catch her attention. She never saw me. It was one-way love.”
Before the war, Gréco was a petit rat or apprentice ballerina at the Opéra de Paris. Her mother joined the Resistance and was deported to a Nazi concentration camp. A French police officer in Paris asked Gréco if she was Jewish. Gréco (who was raised Catholic), slapped him in the face. For this she spent a month in prison.
When the war ended, Gréco lived on the Left Bank in boarding houses and hotels whose bills she could not pay. She met the African-American trumpeter Miles Davis in the Hotel Louisiane on the rue de Seine in 1949. They had a passionate love affair. Sartre told Davis he should marry Gréco, but Davis did not want to subject her to prejudice in America, where mixed marriages were still illegal in many states.
There was racism in Paris too. One evening Davis and Gréco asked for a table in an empty restaurant. The maître d’hôtel said none was available. Gréco took his hand and spat in his palm. She described her own character as fierce. In an interview with Libération at age 76, she said, “Sometimes I have to hold myself back from slugging someone in the face. Usually it’s political. Racist positions ... lack of respect for those who have been imprisoned and tortured.”
Young women everywhere imitated her look: slinky black dresses, black eyeliner and long black hair
Gréco was discreet about her many lovers, though she told French radio she said no to Sartre. She married two actors before spending 30 years with her third husband, Gérard Jouannest, the pianist and composer who previously worked with Gréco's great friend Jacques Brel.
Sartre gave Gréco several poems for her singing début in 1949, including Raymond Queneau's Si tu t'imagines (If you imagine), a warning to young women that their beauty will fade. Sartre said her voice contained "millions of unwritten poems, some of which we will write". Sartre, Beauvoir, Camus, Jean Cocteau and Marlon Brando attended her first concert.
Gréco hesitated between singing and acting, and played in more than a dozen movies. The Hollywood producer Darryl Zanuck loved her and gave her several roles, including in a film directed by John Huston and another in which she co-starred with Orson Welles. Back in France, she gained the lead role in a long-running television series, Belphégor, Phantom of the Louvre.
Gréco found herself ugly, and three times underwent plastic surgery on her nose. But young women everywhere imitated her look: slinky black dresses, black eyeliner and long black hair.
Gréco sang of her beloved Paris, of amour, rebellion and fleeting pleasures. The great postwar poets and composers scrambled to write for her. When she died, Libération headlined “Il n’y a plus d’après (There is no more after),” the title of the song that Guy Béart wrote for her about Saint-Germain-des-Prés. “Adieu Jolie Môme (Farewell beautiful kid),” said Le Parisien, using the title of her song by Léo Ferré.
Gréco’s greatest hit, the sensual Déshabillez-moi (Undress Me) came out in the revolutionary year 1968.
Saint-Germain-des-Prés is today a shadow of its former self, soulless and invaded by designer boutiques. But a ghost of its lost mystique hangs over the cobblestoned streets and cafes. If you listen carefully, you can almost hear Gréco’s velvety intonations.