de Gaulle, Yvonne (1900–1979)
de Gaulle, Yvonne (1900–1979)
French first lady who went into exile with her husband Charles de Gaulle when he headed the Free French resistance during WWII and was, in her later years, affectionately known in France as "Tante Yvonne" (Aunt Yvonne). Name variations: Madame de Gaulle. Born Yvonne Charlotte Anne-Marie Vendroux (pronunciation: Vahn-DROO) on May 22, 1900, in the family home in Calais, on the Channel coast of France; died on November 8, 1979, in the military hospital Val-de-Grâce, Paris; daughter of Jacques Vendroux (the head of a biscuit manufacturing company) and Marguerite (Forest) Vendroux; received primary and secondary education largely with private tutors at home; spent several years at a primary school, Notre-Dame in Calais; married Charles de Gaulle, on April 7, 1921 (a civil ceremony took place the previous day but it was the religious ceremony held April 7 that was regarded as their wedding by the de Gaulles); children: Philippe (b. December 28, 1921); Elisabeth de Boissieu (b. May 15, 1924); Anne de Gaulle (January 1, 1928–February 6, 1948).
Childhood years spent in family home in Calais; at age five, began primary education with private tutors (1905); as German forces advanced toward Calais at outset of WWI, Vendroux family took refuge in England (July–August 1914); family returned to Calais (December 1914); cared for war wounded in Calais (1915–16); left Calais, under threat of German bombs, for safety in Paris (1916); as renewed German offensive threatened Paris (March 1918), sent out of harm's way to Mortagne, Brittany, then Perigueux (summer and autumn, 1918); worked with mother among the wounded war veterans in Calais (1919–20); met Charles de Gaulle (October 1920); after marriage, lived together in Paris (1921); moved with Charles, who was promoted to major and placed in charge of 19th Battalion of Light Infantry in Trier, Germany (1927); moved with family to Beirut (then in Syria, a French mandate of the League of Nations, now Lebanon), where Charles was posted (1929); returned to Paris (1931); purchased La Boisserie, an estate in the village of Colombey-les-Deux-Églises, in the Haute-Marne department in eastern France (June 9, 1934); based in Metz where Charles commanded the 507th Tank Regiment (1937); outbreak of WWII (September 1, 1939); Germans entered Paris (June 14, 1940); de Gaulle family left France for London (June 17) where Charles' first BBC radio broadcast back to France called for resistance against Germany (June 18); moved to join Charles in liberated Algiers (July 1943); Allied invasion of Normandy (June 6, 1944); rejoined Charles, now head of the Provisional Government, in Neuilly, near Paris (September 1944); Charles resigned as head of the Provisional Government (January, 1946); moved back into La Boisserie(May 1946); death of daughter Anne, caused by pneumonia (February 6, 1948); returned to Paris with re-call of Charles to power during Algerian crisis (June 1, 1958); became "first lady" of France upon the inauguration of Charles as first president of the Fifth Republic (January 8, 1959); narrowly survived an assassination attempt in the company of her husband (August 22, 1962); retired to La Boisserie after referendum defeat of de Gaulle (April 1969); death of Charles de Gaulle (November 9, 1970).
On August 22, 1962, in the Paris suburb of Petit-Clamart, en route from the Élysée Palace to the town of Villacoublay, the French presidential car was ambushed by a commando who fired some 150 shots from automatic weapons. Fourteen bullets struck the car in which Charles and Yvonne de Gaulle, their son-in-law Alain de Boissieu, and the driver Francis Marroux were riding, on their way for a weekend at the presidential retreat in Colombey-les-Deux-Églises. No one was hit. The Petit-Clamart attack was but the closest call in a series of assassination attempts by groups opposed to Charles de Gaulle's ceding of independence to the rebellious colony of Algeria. The general, at least according to some accounts, had been too proud even to drop to the floor during the fusillade, and, even though a bullet passed between their heads, Yvonne de Gaulle had also remained seated erect during the attack. Upon their arrival at Villacoublay, the general turned to his wife and said: "Yvonne, you are brave."
Yvonne de Gaulle's behavior during and after the Petit-Clamart assassination attempt typified the stoicism, courage, and fidelity that characterized her entire adult life and for which she is remembered in France. Years after her death, President Richard Nixon remembered her having said in 1969, "the presidency is temporary, the family permanent." The product of a middle-class Catholic family from Calais, in Normandy, Yvonne de Gaulle exemplified the "dutiful wife and mother," silent in public but influential behind the scenes. Deeply religious and private, she kept to herself whatever complaints she might have had living with the self-assured and frequently cantankerous Charles de Gaulle. She lived so privately that, even as first lady in France during the 1960s, she was able to shop in Parisian stores without being recognized. Although her role came increasingly into question in the France of the 1960s, she nonetheless came to be respected in France as "Tante Yvonne" (Aunt Yvonne), during the presidency of her husband.
The daughter of Jacques and Marguerite Vendroux , Yvonne Vendroux was born on May 22, 1900, in the family home in Calais, on the Channel coast of France. Her father, who had gone into the biscuit-producing business, came from a long line of shipowners and local mayors and was himself vice president of the Chamber of Commerce, a municipal councilor, and the honorary consul of several foreign countries. He was, in French terms, a "notable," or local dignitary. His family, the Van Droog, tobacco producers, had moved in the late 17th century from Delft in Holland to Dunkirk, where the name was changed to Vandroux; later the family moved to Calais, where the name was changed to Vendroux. Yvonne's mother, Marguerite Forest Vendroux, was the granddaughter of a well-known notary of the town of Charleville.
Madame de Gaulle's importance was considerable not for what she said or did but for what she neither did nor said, by her silent presence.
Yvonne Vendroux had a happy and stable childhood. Raised amid comfortable circumstances, the second of four children, she spent her early years with her family, in Calais in the winter and in a country estate in the Ardennes during the summer, where she went mountain climbing and developed a lifelong love of nature, especially flowers. Most of her schooling took place in the form of home tutoring. Dubious about the quality of the local schools after the 1905 separation of church and state in France, Yvonne's parents hired a tutor, Mademoiselle Delannoy , for her primary education. After 1907, she was sent for awhile as a day student to the local Notre-Dame boarding school, but her parents retained the tutor to supplement their daughter's education. Her secondary school education took place entirely at home.
Yvonne's first communion, in 1911, was followed by three relatively carefree years, broken with the onset of World War I in August 1914. As German forces advanced toward Calais and bombs fell on the town early in the war, the Vendroux family took refuge in Kent, in southern England. By the end of 1914, when it had become clear that the French forces would hold and Calais would be safe from German invasion, the Vendroux family returned. There, Yvonne's activities continued to revolve around the home as her mother cared for wounded war veterans. In 1916, seeking greater security, the family again left Calais for Paris, where Yvonne remained until March 1918, when a renewed German offensive led the family to send her and her sister Suzanne to Brittany. Now 18, Yvonne next went to Perigueux, where she spent the final days of World War I. With the end of the war, the Vendroux family turned to the restoration of their various properties in the Calais and Ardennes areas. Yvonne assumed an increasing role in household management, allowing her mother to continue to work in veterans' hospitals. Her older brother Jacques accompanied her as chaperon to the parties and balls in Paris and Calais. Yvonne soon joined her mother working among the war wounded, widows, and orphans.
In October 1920, at a tea arranged by family friends, Yvonne met Captain Charles de Gaulle, then on a brief leave from service with the French military mission in Poland. Shortly thereafter, he invited her to a ball at Saint-Cyr, the French military academy. Taken with Charles, Yvonne accepted and went in the company of Jacques. A few days later, asked directly about her feelings toward Charles, Yvonne replied, "It will be he or no one." The families met, and the couple was officially affianced on November 11, 1920. Charles had to return for two additional months' service in Poland, then returned to France in February. He was named professor of history at Saint-Cyr, a post that would keep him in Paris.
Yvonne Vendroux and Charles de Gaulle were married in a civil ceremony in Calais on April 6, 1921, and in a religious ceremony the next day at the Notre-Dame Church in that city. Following their marriage, the young couple settled in a modest Paris apartment and lived a relatively quiet life. Their son Philippe was born at the end of 1921. In 1924, their second child, Elizabeth, was born. Charles finished his studies at the War College, published his first book, La Discorde chez l'Ennemi (Discord in the Enemy), and was posted as an officer working with Marshal Philippe Pétain, the hero of World War I, with whose career his own would be dramatically crossed. In 1927, Yvonne de Gaulle joined her husband in a posting in Trier, Germany, where in 1928, their daughter Anne was born. Within months of Anne's birth, it had become clear that she was suffering from Down's syndrome. Anne was never to speak well or eat or dress unaided. Her illness was the great personal tragedy of the de Gaulles who cared for her tenderly.
In 1929, the de Gaulles were sent to Beirut, Lebanon, then part of French-controlled Syria, where they remained until 1931. In 1932, Yvonne's father died; her mother died the following year. At the end of 1933, Charles de Gaulle was promoted to lieutenant colonel. In June 1934, the de Gaulles bought "La Boisserie," the estate of Yvonne's late parents, located in the village of Colombey-les-Deux-Églises, in the gently rolling hills of the Haute-Marne department about midway between Paris and France's eastern frontier. The year 1934 also saw the publication of Charles' second book, Vers l'armée de métier (The Army of the Future), which argued, to little avail, that the French should adopt new mechanized forms of warfare. In 1937, Charles was given the command of the 507th Tank Regiment based in Metz. Life for the de Gaulle family revolved quietly around Paris, Metz, and La Boisserie.
Yvonne's domain was the family home at La Boisserie, her place of refuge from the turbulent political affairs surrounding her husband. She quietly endured the tragedy of Anne's disabilities while living with a man who was very much a lone rebel in political and military circles during the 1930s, and who clearly ruled as master of the household. Known for his arrogance, Charles was said to be a tyrant at home, with Yvonne silently bearing the brunt of his disappointment and frustration. Charles dominated conversations; Yvonne was told plainly, and sometimes publicly, that her opinion did not count. On more than one occasion Charles was observed telling his wife to be silent, that she could not possibly know anything about politics. Years later, an acquaintance said that compared to the cheerful if somewhat reticent young woman who had married Charles in 1921, the Yvonne of the late 1930s was profoundly sad.
The outbreak of war with Nazi Germany in September 1939 found Charles in command of his tank regiment. Poland was quickly crushed by the Germans, but the war with France involved little actual fighting in what became known as the drôle de guerre, or phony war. This changed with the German thrust westward of May 10, 1940. The force of the German onslaught was such that, within days, Charles was writing from the front to Yvonne at La Boisserie, warning her to be ready for quick flight in the event that the military situation turned disastrous. On June 1, Charles was promoted to brigadier-general. Five days later, he was appointed undersecretary of state for National Defense and War by Premier Paul Reynaud. The Germans entered Paris on June 14. On June 16, the Reynaud government was replaced by one headed by Marshal Pétain, who was committed to seeking peace with the Germans. A day later, Yvonne with her three children and their governess left for England to join her husband, a political exile.
For the second time in her life, Yvonne de Gaulle experienced wartime exile in England. On June 18, Charles broadcast back to France, calling on the entire nation to resist the Germans and any French authority that supported collaboration with them. In London, their son Philippe, then 18 years old, joined the newly created Free French Navy in July. In addition to the occupation of her homeland, Yvonne had to accept the fact that her husband was now a rebel, standing almost alone against his country's legal government, which was headed by World War I hero and his own former sponsor, Marshal Pétain. Moreover, Pétain sentenced Charles to death in absentia for wartime desertion and treason. Yvonne set up a household in London as he organized what became the Free French resistance to Nazi Germany and the government of Vichy France. Whatever his other activities in wartime London, Charles was invariably present to tell Anne stories at her bedtime and to shield her from the press.
Together with other Londoners, Yvonne endured the German Blitz or air raids in the summer and fall of 1940, but ultimately her faith in her husband's vision was rewarded; the fortunes of war turned with the entry of the Soviet Union and the United States into combat against the Nazis. Following the liberation of French North Africa, the de Gaulle family returned to Algiers in June 1943. The liberation of metropolitan France, which began with the D-Day landings in Normandy, June 6, 1944, left the country under the Free French, reorganized as a Provisional Government and headed by Charles de Gaulle. In late August, Paris was liberated and by the end of September, almost all of metropolitan France had been cleared of Germans. Yvonne, now the wife of the leader of the Provisional Government, returned home to supervise the reconstruction of La Boisserie, which had been pillaged and partially burned during the Occupation. Charles, however, became increasingly dispirited as the politicians who had dominated prewar politics and, in his view, had brought on the catastrophe of 1940, regained strength, promising to recreate what he called the "regime of parties." On January 3, 1946, a few weeks after the marriage of daughter Elisabeth to Commander Alain de Boissieu, Charles abruptly resigned his position. The family lived until May in an uncomfortable house rented from the government while La Boisserie was being restored and Charles waited restlessly to be recalled to power.
In 1946, with the help of Georges Pompidou, who later served as one of Charles' prime ministers and was to become his successor as president, the de Gaulles established the Anne de Gaulle Foundation to help handicapped girls. The Foundation was to care for Anne in the event that her parents predeceased her. Supported financially by the income from Charles' books, the Foundation built a house on a wooded hill in the Chevreuse valley. Staffed by six nuns and a mother superior, the house eventually provided for some 40 handicapped girls. Yvonne helped select them.
In April 1947, Charles created the Rassemblement du Peuple Français (Rally of the French People), a political party that was to serve as a vehicle for his return to power. Then, on February 6, 1948, Anne died of bronchial pneumonia at age 20. With the death of Anne, the Anne de Gaulle Foundation occupied much of Yvonne's attention. She also accompanied Charles throughout France as he campaigned for his new RPF, but by 1952, the party was fading and he ended it the next year. These years were spent, often with their grandchildren, at La Boisserie where Charles worked on his memoirs, with occasional trips abroad where he was received as the hero of the wartime French Resistance. To visitors at La Boisserie, Yvonne occasionally expressed the desire to protect her husband "for history," and keep him out of politics. The tranquil life was interrupted, however, when the government's inability to suppress the Algerian rebellion led to rioting by European Algerians in the streets of Algiers on May 13, 1958. La Boisserie was quickly turned into a command post as Charles and his advisors planned his return to office. On June 1, Charles de Gaulle was voted in as premier by the National Assembly with full powers to write a new constitution for France. The result was France's Fifth Republic, with a much stronger presidency, filled in 1959 by Charles de Gaulle.
Once again, Yvonne de Gaulle was a reluctant first lady of France. During the early 1960s, Charles survived several assassination attempts by opponents of independence for Algeria. The closest call was the Petit-Clamart fusillade in 1962. Profiting by the wave of sympathy engendered by the assassination attempt, Charles proposed a constitutional change to elect the president by universal suffrage, which was approved by popular referendum in October. In 1965, against Yvonne's will, he stood as a candidate for the presidency. Forced into a runoff with Socialist candidate François Mitterrand, Charles was elected in the second round to a seven-year term.
To many in 1960s France, "Aunt Yvonne" came to represent the wife of a previous era. She accompanied Charles to innumerable Paris Opera galas, where she sat through close to 30 performances of "Carmen," and hosted the Kennedys, Khrushchevs, and many other world leaders. The comparison of the prim and somewhat dowdy Yvonne, who scrupulously supervised the household affairs of France's presidential Élysée Palace, with the youthful and fashionable Jacqueline Kennedy , who accompanied her husband, then president of the United States, on a visit to Paris in 1961, was played out in the international press. Wearing sedate black, gray, or mauve dresses designed by Paris couturier Jacques Heim, Yvonne avoided décolletage and shunned the more up-to-date fashions of Coco Chanel . Yvonne's successor as France's first lady, Claude Pompidou , recalled later that Yvonne's only advice to her had been to wear hats. Yvonne arranged the floral decorations of the palace, and she loved to travel and accompany her husband on all his official trips abroad, but whenever possible, she returned
to La Boisserie and the gardens that were her favorite pastime.
A strict Catholic, Yvonne set an austere tone at the Élysée Palace, making sure the private lives of those in her husband's entourage passed moral muster. Exerting a considerable, if private, influence, she saw to it that divorcees were weeded out of influential positions and excluded from presidential social functions. She was equally severe in her judgments of much of the literature and film of the 1960s and carefully scrutinized the selection of films to be shown in the palace. For her religious devotions, she had a special chapel built inside the Élysée Palace.
Yvonne was with Charles when, during the height of the student and worker unrest of May 1968, he traveled to Baden-Baden to consult with French generals about the possibility of his resigning. She shared his disappointment, when, in April 1969, in a referendum he had called on behalf of decentralizing political reforms, he was defeated. Having staked his political prestige on the referendum, Charles immediately resigned. The couple returned to La Boisserie, where on November 9, 1970, Charles died. Yvonne continued to live there, where she cooked, knitted, and tended her garden, visited often by her children and four grandchildren until the fall of 1978, when she withdrew to the Sisters of the Immaculate Conception convent in Paris. In July 1979, she was operated on in Paris for an intestinal obstruction. Readmitted to a Paris military hospital, she died November 8, 1979. She was buried beside Charles and Anne at the church cemetery in Colombey-les-Deux-Églises. Surviving Yvonne, in addition to her son Philippe and daughter Elisabeth, were her grandchildren and one great-grandson. Mourned as the symbol of moral rectitude and marital fidelity of a long gone era, "Tante Yvonne" was called the "minister of common sense" in the government of General Charles de Gaulle. Following her death, La Boisserie, which remained in the possession of Philippe, was converted into a museum, open to the public, in honor of the de Gaulles.
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Bertram M. Gordon , Frederick A. Rice Professor of History, Mills College, Oakland, California; author of Collaborationism in Europe during the Second World War, and editor of Historical Dictionary of World War II France (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1998)