Guilbert, Yvette (1865–1944)
Guilbert, Yvette (1865–1944)
Noted French cabaret singer who developed into a collector, scholar, and performer of historic French folk songs. Nicknames: Queen of Paris; The Lean Witch. Pronunciation: Eve-ETT Geel-BEAR. Born Emma Laure Guilbert on January 29, 1865, in Paris, France; died on February 3, 1944, at Aix-en-Provence, of heart failure; daughter of Hippolyte Guilbert (a shopkeeper) and Albine (Lubrez) Guilbert (a seamstress); attended private school in Paris, 1873–77; married Max Schiller (an impresario), on June 22, 1897; children: none.
Family bankrupted when her mother's hat business failed, and father deserted the family (1878); began employment as model and saleswoman (1881); death of her father (1882); became protégé of circus impresario Charles Zidler (1885); made theatrical debut in Paris (1887); began career in concert cafés (1889); album of pictures of her published by Toulouse-Lautrec; gave her first performance in London (1894); went on American tour (1895–96); met Max Schiller (1896); toured Europe (1897–99); had surgery for kidney ailment (1899); began concert career, and published first novel (1901); published Struggles and Victories, and founded school for working class children (1910); was a wartime resident in U.S. (1915–18); opened "School of the Theater" in New York (1919); returned to France (1922); demanded Legion of Honor from Aristide Briand (1926); began newspaper column (1930); awarded Legion of Honor (1932); fled Paris for Aix-en-Provence in face of German invasion (1940).
Yvette Guilbert, who survived an impoverished childhood to become France's most famous cabaret singer in the 1890s, delivered her melodies in a half-sung, half-spoken fashion that led critics to describe her as a diseuse (reciter, or teller of songs) rather than as a pure singer. Guilbert's fame arose from her prominent role in the café concert (or cabaret) world of late 19th-century Montmartre. There in cafes, where the audience enjoyed popular singers while they were able to drink alcohol, she became one of the leading performers of the chanson or traditional French song. Like other cabaret performers of the time, she presented songs that reflected the dark side of Parisian life with themes like poverty, prostitution, and crime. Such songs often had a sharp anti-bourgeois and anti-establishment tone. Her most important venues in this phase of her artistic career were the famous cafes Le Chat Noir and the Moulin Rouge. There, she drew especially on the witty songs of Léon Xanrof. Famous for the dramatic costume that had distinguished her performances in the 1890s—especially her long black gloves—she came to despise such popular artifices in favor of her role as a practitioner of high culture.
At age 35, she redirected her formidable energies, and this self-educated woman turned into a scholarly caretaker and performer of France's historic folk songs. Her collection of original texts grew to the proportions of a scholarly treasure trove, containing more than 80,000 songs. In later life, her performances often took the form of song recitals in conjunction with scholarly lectures given by authorities on historic French literature. Her energetic life also included friendship with such intellectual luminaries as Sigmund Freud and George Bernard Shaw, while she plunged into new roles as a writer, stage and screen actress, and unofficial ambassador of French culture. Nonetheless, Yvette Guilbert is still largely remembered in the words of Harold Segel as "the great chanteuse of turn-of-the-century Paris."
The future cabaret star was born in Paris on January 29, 1865, the daughter of an ambitious but feckless merchant, Hippolyte Guilbert, and Albine Lubrez Guilbert , a former farm girl from Normandy. Shortly before their daughter's birth, Albine and Hippolyte had moved to the French capital to realize Hippolyte's hopes for a brilliant career in business; instead, he experienced a series of devastating failures. Despite a period of prosperity for the family in the mid-1870s when Albine was a successful hat designer, Albine and Yvette spent the following years in poverty. After Hippolyte Guilbert deserted the family in 1878, mother and daughter sometimes found themselves in outright destitution.
In 1881, Yvette began work as a model and shopwoman. In a story derived from her memoirs—and which her biographers Bettina Knapp and Myra Chipman have accepted at face value—the turning point in her life came in 1885 in a chance meeting with Charles Zidler, the great circus impresario. Guilbert claimed that Zidler offered her a chance to become a circus equestrian, and even though she rejected the offer because her mother thought the work too dangerous, Zidler remained her friend and patron. It seems more likely that he continued his tie with Yvette because she offered him sexual favors. Her romanticized account of the years after 1885 also included a similar story of a chance meeting and allegedly platonic relation-ship with Edmond Stoullig, a noted theater critic. She gave credit to Stoullig, along with Zidler, for encouraging her to train for the stage and to begin a career as an actress in 1887.
Demonstrating a significant musical talent that may have come from her ne'er-do-well father, Guilbert was attracted to the thriving world of the café concert. These cabarets ranged from those aimed at artists and intellectuals to others that attracted a working-class audience, and they offered a variety of inexpensive entertainment to crowds that ate and drank while watching the performances. Guilbert was strongly tempted by the greater earnings available to her as a cabaret performer compared to what she could earn on the legitimate stage.
At first, her performances were unimpressive, even disastrous. A tall, thin woman with a restrained manner, she did not meet the expectations audiences had for a buxom and shapely female entertainer who would present them with ribald ditties. In a set of early performances in the provincial city of Lyons in late 1889, she was shouted off the stage night after night by audiences that mocked her flat-chested figure.
No nation has, nor will have, another Yvette Guilbert, for the simple reason that the art of Yvette Guilbert is her own creation.
Undiscouraged, this tough product of a poor Parisian childhood turned herself into a unique and compelling performer. She accentuated her physical features by whitening her face, dying her hair a striking shade of red, and wearing shoulder-length black gloves. The gloves became her signature garment and featured prominently in the cartoon images that the painter Henry Toulouse-Lautrec produced of her after her fame was established. Guilbert searched Paris for appropriate songs, finding raucous, pathetic, and dramatic tunes that mesmerized audiences. The superior diction she had learned as a stage actress set her off from other cabaret performers as she presented the half-spoken lyrics of such songs with unforgettable effect. One that had particular appeal was "My Head," in which she played the role of a pimp sentenced to die for murder. She ended the song by suddenly tipping her head to drop her hat which had been weighted with lead to fall quickly. This action jolted audiences with the simulated sound of a head dropping after the guillotine had done its work.
Yvette Guilbert became one of the leading stage personalities in Paris during the 1890s, commanding huge sums of money for her memorable appearances. In 1891, an American reporter in Paris caught the flavor of her sudden success. "A year ago Yvette Guilbert was practically un-known," he wrote, but now "the whole gay capital is at her feet." She is "indisputably the most talked of and, by all odds, the most popular woman in Paris." By the middle years of the decade, she had become an international star as well. Her tour of the United States was followed by triumphal visits to the capitals of Europe.
As the rage of Paris, the fashionable cabaret singer soon found herself with a range of acquaintances stretching from the prince of Wales (the future Edward VII) to the French artist Toulouse-Lautrec. She came to know the heir to the British throne when she agreed to sing at a private party in 1894, and he turned out to be the guest of honor. She was a favorite subject for the drawings of Toulouse-Lautrec. The bitter, talented, and physically misshapen noble at first observed the singer shyly from a distance when he made his initial sketch of her in 1892. He was soon following Guilbert avidly from theater to theater, and she became the subject of an entire book of sketches that he published in 1894. His images of her were not flattering. The singer was so shocked to find that Toulouse-Lautrec was presenting her in a distorted and distasteful manner that she considered legal action against him. In time, however, the two became warm friends.
In 1896, her life took a new turn when she met Max Schiller during another tour of the United States. A member of a Jewish family from Rumania that had fled persecution to settle in Berlin, he had been educated as a scientist but subsequently took up a career as a theatrical producer. It is uncertain exactly how they became acquainted, but the relationship quickly took the form of a passionate romance. They were married in Paris in June 1897. Max took on the role of her manager, and they began a life together that lasted for almost half a century.
A new turn of a different sort came two years later when Guilbert nearly died as a result of surgery. In her efforts to present a striking figure on stage, she had for years appeared in a tightly laced corset that produced a 19-inch waistline. The price she paid for this was the development of a severe kidney ailment. Although the operation to remove a kidney was life-threatening, the singer survived and gradually regained her health. Her lean figure, however, was gone forever. And her brush with death turned her artistic interests in a new direction.
Although without much formal education, Guilbert had plunged into an enthusiastic study of French language and cultural history as far back as the mid-1880s when she trained for a career in the legitimate theater. From the time she took up the role of cabaret singer, she became
seriously interested in historic antecedents of French popular music. Her appearances after her operation came to include examples of French historic music dating back as far as the Middle Ages. In time, such music emerged as the most prominent component in her repertoire. In another departure from her earlier career, she now began a career as a writer, producing a number of novels and several sets of autobiographical works starting with Struggles and Victories, which she wrote in collaboration with Harold Simpson in 1910.
The outbreak of war in August 1914 brought turmoil to all citizens of France, but Yvette Guilbert found herself in a particularly painful situation. The imminent declaration of war found Yvette and Max in Berlin, and they had to endure a crowded express train filled with other French citizens in order to escape to Belgium. Moreover, she was married to a German, and she had developed a longstanding identification with Germany due to her frequent appearances there. Thus, the great singer's loyalty soon came into question. Complimentary remarks she had made publicly about Germany added to the cloud of suspicion. Public distrust of the famous singer took the form of rumors that her house, located near the city's fortifications, had been transformed into a base for German agents.
In response, Yvette and Max left in 1915 for an extended stay in the United States. Already committed to a tour there, they now saw the neutral country across the Atlantic as a refuge. As Guilbert wrote to her manager, "America to me is like unto the divine grace of entrance into the Promised Land." She failed to get the French government to help her case by awarding her some kind of official title, but she transformed herself, nonetheless, into a public spokeswoman for the French cause.
Her reception was often more than enthusiastic. Critics praised the unique nature of her performance, one noting that "it is not acting, it is not singing, it is not recitation; yet it combines the finest beauties of all three." Guilbert presented the historic songs of France, ranging from religious ballads to the coarse songs of the French people in past centuries. She accompanied her performances with pleas to Americans to support France in the war, not merely with money but with recruits for the French armed forces.
For years, Yvette Guilbert had enlivened her foreign tours with quotable remarks about the superiority of French culture and the relative inferiority of English and American taste. Even in wartime circumstances, she retained her characteristic candor. Her inability to restrain herself when criticizing American culture was combined with her increasingly vocal enthusiasm for the cause of women's suffrage. Thus, remarks about American materialism and proclamations about the moral superiority of women over men tempered the favorable reception she was getting in the States. Her remarks about why a foreign artist would come to America were particularly sharp. It was "for the sake of making money. Honestly, for what other reason can you Americans suppose that an artist would come?" Nonetheless, she was still able to draw audiences even when her performances included such stodgy elements as formal lectures on the history of the French song, recitations of French poetry, and discussions of stage technique. Her appearances also took place on college and university campuses, beginning with an invitation to perform at Bryn Mawr in 1916. The woman who had once shocked Parisian cabaret audiences with pornographic songs had now become a respected authority on France's musical history.
Following a brief trip to Paris in 1919, Yvette and Max returned to the United States. After long efforts and little success, she had managed to find a wealthy American sponsor for her longstanding dream of a theater school. It opened in the Hotel Majestic. Though she tapped specialists, such as leading academic and newspaper critics, she made herself the main instructor. Her biographers attribute her passion for this project in part to "her early educational deprivations" and "the instinctive deference the self-educated always pay to organizational trappings." In the end, however, the school could not survive financially. In 1922, Guilbert returned reluctantly to France.
Parisian crowds again flocked to see her, even though some critics carped that her recitation of medieval religious songs now seemed tedious. She succeeded in establishing a French theater school like the one she had offered to American students. But, once again, financial problems led to the project's collapse. Her sense of impending mortality grew, as old friends and associates—the author Pierre Loti, the actresses Sarah Bernhardt and Eleonora Duse —died within months of one another in the early 1920s.
Guilbert revived her spirits—and her shaky finances—by returning to her longstanding style of bawdy performances in 1924. Wearing her old costume—including the long black gloves she had come to despise—she delighted music-hall audiences with the songs that had made her famous. Nonetheless, she continued her presentations of French historical songs to smaller, but equally devoted, audiences. In a daring move given the prevailing postwar bitterness between her country and Germany, she even appeared in Berlin in 1925, ending her performance with a plea for Franco-German friendship. Soon she was touring the German and Austrian cities where she had appeared in prewar days.
In 1927, she completed her most ambitious attempt to tell her own story. La Chanson de mavie (soon published in English as The Song of My Life) was a more extensive book than Struggles and Victories. Moreover, this dramatic account of her life from impoverished childhood to professional glory was purely the product of her own pen. The famed singer continued her literary efforts with the publication of another book that tapped her life's experiences. Entitled The Astonished Passer-by, it appeared in 1929. The book stressed her foreign travels, but it now showed, in the words of her biographers, "the voice… of an embittered woman." Guilbert devoted much of her writing in Passer-by to a sharp condemnation of America and the Americans, taking special aim at the American financiers who had long frustrated her ambitions to set up a school for the theater. A year later, her literary career moved in still another direction; she began a column of personal opinion and observation, with the title of Guilbertinages, that appeared at irregular intervals for years in the newspaper Paris Soir. "Whatever caught her imagination," according to Knapp and Chipman, "her quick pen flung on paper."
Contact with the world of European high culture came through a series of remarkable friendships. She had known George Bernard Shaw from the days before World War I, and she maintained their personal tie by visiting him in London during her tours. In the 1930s, she initiated an extensive correspondence with Sigmund Freud.
In 1932, Yvette Guilbert was awarded the Legion of Honor, the decoration that signified distinguished accomplishment in the interests of France. Ironically, only a few years earlier in 1926, she had scandalized France's elite by baiting the renowned political leader Aristide Briand for the government's failure to give her such a mark of distinction. Accosting Briand at a luncheon for the French and foreign press, she had vocally demanded the award.
Her tours of Europe continued throughout the 1930s, although the spread of Nazism made it difficult, then impossible for Guilbert and her Jewish husband to travel to Germany and Austria. Burdened by arthritis, the singer found it increasingly arduous to perform. At times, it appeared she no longer had the drawing power of earlier years, and empty seats became common during both her appearances abroad and in France. Nonetheless, she had a nostalgic triumph in 1937 when a committee led by France's minister of education, Jean Zay, organized a mammoth jubilee celebration at Paris' Salle Pleyel to mark her 50 years on the stage.
When World War II brought the German invasion of France in the spring of 1940, Yvette and Max fled southward and set up housekeeping in Aix-en-Province. Here, in the part of France not under direct German occupation, the country's Vichy government conducted its own program of persecuting Jews, and the singer and her husband led a precarious existence for the next several years. An official investigation established that Guilbert was not Jewish, but her husband's life remained in danger. The strain brought on a near fatal heart attack for Guilbert in December 1942, but she kept busy writing a new volume of memoirs. Her life ended on February 3, 1944, when her heart failed following an attack of bronchial pneumonia. Her husband survived the war and brought Guilbert's body back to Paris where she was reburied in the Père Lachaise Cemetery.
Frey, Julia. Toulouse-Lautrec: A Life. NY: Viking, 1994.
Guilbert, Yvette. The Song of My Life. Translated by Béatrice de Holthoir. London: G.G. Harrap, 1929.
Knapp, Bettina, and Myra Chipman. That Was Yvette: The Biography of Yvette Guilbert, The Great Diseuse. NY: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1964.
Sorel, Nancy Caldwell. "Yvette Guilbert and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec," in Atlantic Monthly. November 1986, p. 125.
Geffroy, Gustave. Yvette Guilbert. Translated by Barbara Sessions. Illustrated by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. NY: Walker, 1968.
Oberthur, Mariel. Cafes and Cabarets of Montmartre. Salt Lake City, UT: Gibbs M. Smith, 1984.