Juliette Gréco, actress, singer

Born: February 7, 1927;

Died: September 23, 2020.

JULIETTE Gréco, who has died of a stroke aged 93 at her home near St Tropez, was an icon of post-Second World War French bohemianism. Before she became the last of the great French chanteuses, Gréco’s presence became a vital part of Left Bank café culture where intellectuals held court. Here, she became friends with the era’s literary set, including Albert Camus, Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre and Jacques Prévert. She learnt, she said, by listening to them. The creative energy was reciprocated, and she captivated them all.

“Gréco has a million poems in her voice,” said Sartre, who based a character on her in his The Roads to Freedom trilogy, and wrote the songs for her that first made her take the leap onto the stage. “In her mouth,” he continued, “my words become precious stones.” In such heady times, not for nothing was Gréco nicknamed la Muse de l’existentialisme. She was all that, and so much more besides.

As an actress, she appeared in films including Orphée (1950), directed by Jean Cocteau, and, in a case of art imitating life, in a big-screen adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s novel, The Sun Also Rises (1957). She also acted opposite Errol Flynn in John Huston’s The Roots of Heaven (1958), and later starred in TV fantasy series, Belphegor, Phantom of the Louvre (1965).

As a singer, Gréco’s repertoire included works penned for her by Prévert and Charles Aznavour, and later by Serge Gainsbourg. Recognising her vocal limitations, she brought ice-cool drama to her delivery. Dressed eternally in black, Gréco dazzled on her own terms, without any showbiz airs or tripping over herself to please. She brought an intense seriousness to her interpretations, with real life experience etched in every line.

Such seeming aloofness appealed to a younger generation weaned on a more frivolous form of pop, but attracted to the romance of all things French. The Beatles adored Gréco, and Paul McCartney wrote Michelle in honour of her and the scene she inhabited. Gréco was alluded to as well in Kinks singer Ray Davies’ song, Art School Babe.

Juliette Gréco was born in Montpellier, France, the youngest of two daughters to Gérard Gréco, a Corsican policeman, and Juliette Gréco, née Lafeychine. The pair separated, and Gréco and her sister Charlotte were brought up in part by their maternal grand-parents in Bordeaux.

Gréco was twelve when the war began in Europe, and both her mother and her sister survived Nazi prison camps following their involvement in the French Resistance. Gréco, too, was imprisoned for several months, and it was likely during this time she developed an oppositionist stance that never left her.

Still in her teens at the end of the war, she lived alone, and took acting lessons while working at Left Bank jazz club, Le Tabou. This wasn’t enough to stave off poverty, though the men’s hand-me-down clothes and rolled-up trousers she wore out of necessity went some way to shape her striking demeanour. With photographers preying on the neighbourhood, her picture appeared in magazines, and she became the epitome of the new cool; smart, chic, wilfully free-spirited and unwilling to suffer fools gladly, even if they were the finest minds of their generation.

Gréco began singing in cabaret in 1949, after she was offered a job helping organise the first show at the newly reopened Le Bœuf Sur le Toit cabaret club. The same year, she embarked on an affair with jazz trumpeter Miles Davis, with whom she remained close until his death in 1991.

Gréco recorded her first hit, Je Suis Comme Je Suis, in 1951. Her debut album, Juliette Gréco – Chante Ses Derniers, followed a year later, and by 1954 she was filling Paris’s Olympia concert hall. On film, she combined all her talents when she sang the title song in Otto Preminger’s film of Francoise Sagan’s Bonjour Tristesse (1958). As times changed, Gréco toured the world, and remained an impressive interpreter of numerous works written for her.

In 1953, she married actor Philippe Lemaire. They divorced three years later after having a daughter, Laurence-Marie Lemaire, who pre-deceased her mother in 2016. In 1966, she met and married another actor, Michel Piccoli. They were together for 11 years. In 1988, she married her third husband, pianist and composer Gérard Jouannest, who wrote some of Jacques Brel’s finest songs. The couple remained together until Jouannest’s passing in 2018. Inbetween her marriages, there were relationships with singer Sacha Distel and Hollywood producer Darryl F. Zanuck.

Gréco’s final acting role was in Jedermanns Fest (2002), though she also appeared in a documentary, Dans les Pas de Marie Curie (2011). She wrote two autobiographies; Jujube (2002) and Je suis faite comme ca (2012). In France, she was made a Commander of the Legion of Honour in 2012; she received the National Order of Merit in 2015, and was made a Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters a year later.

A final album, Gréco Chante Brel, appeared in 2013, and two years later she announced a farewell tour, calling it Merci. Her last-ever live performance took place in 2017 in Paris. It may have become a very different city since her years on the Left Bank, but its soul was still defined by Gréco’s spirit.