I became aware of the name Juliette Greco through a fascination with the early part of Miles Davis’ career. On his first trip to Paris in 1949, they met and began what developed into a lifelong love affair and friendship and more of that later. She went on to became famous for her ‘look’ in the 50s, dressed head to toe in black, looking every inch the French chanteuse she became, but that too is only part of her fascinating story.
She was born in Montpellier in 1927 into a very unpromising start in life. Father, Gerard, was a Corsican. Her mother, also Juliette, rejected her daughter from the start, labelling her as unwanted. Instead baby Juliette and her sister Charlotte were raised in Bordeaux by her mother’s parents, with mother only reappearing when the grandparents died. The three of them then moved to Paris.
Upon the outbreak of the Second World War, the Greco girls moved again, this time down to the South West of the country and became very active in the French Resistance movement. Juliette later said ‘during the occupation, if you tried to listen to jazz, you risked punishment. So we listened to The Lambeth Walk – for us, the ultimate trip.’
Due to her active participation in the Resistance, her mother was arrested in 1943. Charlotte and Juliet escaped to Paris, but were caught by the dreaded Gestapo and imprisoned, suffering torture in the process. Mum and Charlotte were then transported to Ravensbruck concentration camp, whilst Juliette was held in prison until her release a few months later. Once out, she was cared for by Helen Duc, an actress, and a friend of her mothers. Eventually the three of them were reunited in 1945, after the Russians liberated Ravensbruck. Mother was soon off again however, this time to Indochina.
Duc sent young Juliette to acting classes and she appeared on the stage and radio from 1946. She also immersed herself in the lives of French intellectuals, writers such Jean Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, Boris Vian and Jacques Prevert. She began her singing career in 1949, in a cabaret performance at the restaurant ‘Le Boeuf sur le Toit.’
Her deep, dark, mellow voice became an instant hit, and established herself in Paris with ‘Si tu t’imagines’ becoming a popular and well-known song for her. In the coming years, the likes of Jacques Brel, Charles Aznavour and Serge Gainsbourg, would all go on to write for her.
By the early 50s, most of the her work and social life, took place in and around the area of Saint Germain de Pres, within its bars, clubs and cafes, many of which went on to form the legendary ‘Left Bank’ home to musicians, artists, and writers.
She was 22 when she first met Miles Davis, who was over with Dizzy Gillespie, playing at ‘The Pleyel.’ She described it as – ‘a coup de foudre’ – love at first sight. An intense love affair began. They decided against marriage however, due to their careers being in different countries and Davis fearing a mixed relationship would damage Greco’s career. He told Satre, he wouldn’t marry here, because he loved her too much and said to Greco ‘You’d be seen as a Negro’s whore in the US, and this would destroy your career.’ They would remain friends and lovers until his death in 1991.
By now her natural intellect, was well to the fore and she loved philosophical, political and bohemian debates with her writer and filmmaker friends. Jean Cocteau cast her in the role of ‘Aglaonice’ in his film ‘Orpheus’ from 1950s. She would on to make many further films in France in the 1950s, working with the greats like Jean Pierre Melville and later working in Hollywood too, starring alongside Errol Flynn, and Orson Welles.
Her stylish appearance was now one of legend. Dressed in all black, with her long black hair and sharp cut fringe, she pared everything down to a minimum, in many ways it was an anti- showbiz approach.
Marianne Faithfull – ‘When I was a young girl, Juliette Gréco was my absolute idol. She was my role model for life. If I wanted to be anybody, I wanted to be Juliette Gréco.’
Her own Bohemian lifestyle embraced the freedom she particularly enjoyed after her terrible experiences in the War.
She had many lovers, including movie mogul Darryl F. Zanuck and Quincy Jones around the same time as Miles. She also married and had a daughter Laurence with husband, actor Philippe Lemair.
She also inspired the song ‘Michelle’ by The Beatles.
Paul McCartney – ‘we’d tag along to these parties, and it was at the time of people like Juliette Greco, the French bohemian thing. They’d all wear black turtleneck sweaters, it’s kind of where we got all that from, and we fancied Juliette like mad. Have you ever seen her? Dark hair, real chanteuse, really happening. So I used to pretend to be French, and I had this song that turned out later to be ‘Michelle.’
Juliette Greco continued to tour and act throughout her life, surviving all the latest fads and trends, finally ending her 60-year in 2015 with a tour entitled ‘Merci.’ After a remarkable life well lived, she died in September 2020 aged 93.
Jean Paul Satre – ‘Greco has a million poems in her voice, It is like a warm light that revives the embers burning inside of us all. It is thanks to her, and for her, that I have written songs. In her mouth, my words become precious stones.’
The Mumper of SE5
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