French composer, singer and actress who played a major role in promoting the cause of the French popular chanson. Born Mireille Hartuch in Paris, France, on September 30, 1906; died in Paris on December 29, 1996; daughter of Hendel Hartuch and Mathilde Rubinstein Hartuch; married Emmanuel Berl (a noted editor), in 1936 (died 1976).
Author of more than 600 songs, a memorable stage performer, and a mentor and teacher to several generations of French singers, the diminutive and charismatic Mireille taught 80,000 students, many of whom would go on to stardom.
She was born Mireille Hartuch in Paris in 1906, to a mother who had been born in Great Britain and a father who had immigrated to France from Poland and who supported his family by working as a furrier. Although her background was truly cosmopolitan, Mireille was a quintessential Parisian, living her entire life, aside from the period of the Nazi occupation, in her beloved birthplace.
Her musical talents were spotted early. At age ten, she was heard playing the piano by Francis Planté, a virtuoso who had known Rossini and Liszt. Planté took charge of Mireille's musical education; he also had to regretfully inform her parents that despite her talents she would never have a career as a concert pianist because her small hands prevented her from covering an octave. Her energies were not to be blocked, however, and she was soon appearing on stage at the Odéon Theater as Cherubino in The Marriage of Figaro and Puck in A Midsummer Night's Dream.
By the time she was in her late teens, Mireille had discovered that she had a gift for musical composition and started an artistic collaboration with Jean Nohain, a lawyer with a talent for writing song lyrics. The team's long and successful work together began in 1928 when their "American-style" operetta Fouchtra was published (it would never be performed in its entirety on stage). Mireille, who used only her first name, had by now become a successful actress. She played alongside the young Jean Gabin in the operetta Flossie and broke into motion pictures, appearing in a short film with superstar Buster Keaton. Well established in Paris, Mireille appeared in London at the Café de Paris, then crossed the Atlantic to take the lead role in Noel Coward's production of Manon la Crevette on Broadway. While in the United States, she met virtually everyone of note in the entertainment world, including George Gershwin and Cole Porter, and was invited to Hollywood to compose several film scores.
Although she had already achieved considerable fame in Paris, Mireille's major breakthrough took place in the grim Depression year of 1932. Her music publisher persuaded the popular cabaret duo Pills et Tabet to perform a number, "Couchés dans le Foin" (Lying in the Hay), from her operetta Fouchtra. The combination of Mireille's tune and Jean Nohain's witty lyrics made the song a smash hit, and almost overnight a new style in French popular music was born. Light and carefree, the sound was a major departure from the previous style and proved a perfect fit for people in need of escape from the grim realities of the day. Years later, Charles Trenet would attempt to explain the transformation: "I was lucky to arrive at a time when, thanks to Mireille and Jean Nohain, French song had undergone a veritable revolution and people no longer believed that a music-hall artiste had to stand there and utter idiotic rhymes."
Over the next decades, nearly all of France's great popular singers would sing chansons crafted by the team of Mireille-Nohain, including Jacques Brel ("Le Petit Chemin"), Maurice Chevalier ("Quand un Vicomte"), Yves Montand ("Une Demoiselle sur une Balançoire"), and Maurice Sablon. Mireille herself began performing her own compositions in public starting in 1934, and she also made numerous recordings. With a light, slightly sharp voice and perfect diction, she won over her audiences by sheer force of personality, since, according to her friend Sacha Guitry, she was "lucky not to be handicapped by a big voice."
In 1936, Mireille married the noted editor Emmanuel Berl. Calling him "my Voltaire" and claiming never to have read any of her husband's books, she had a happy marriage which would end only with Berl's death in 1976. Both of Jewish ancestry, Mireille and Berl found themselves at great risk during the German occupation of France that began in the summer of 1940. They fled to the provinces, saving themselves and the noted author André Malraux from being arrested by either the Germans or their French collaborators who hunted down Jews and anti-fascists. Mireille played an active role in the French resistance. On one occasion, she was able to prevent a German attack on the Maquis, the French armed resistance which had become active in their region.
Back in Paris after the Nazi occupation ended, she continued her career with confidence and panache. In 1954, believing that the basic skills needed to compose and perform French popular songs could be taught as an academic discipline, Mireille founded her Petit Conservatoire de la Chanson. Located in Paris' Rue de l'Université, this school was the first attempt in history to teach the art of the French chanson, both in terms of artistic creation (composition) and recreation (performance). Although initially looked upon somewhat skeptically by cabaret performers and hardened veterans of the entertainment industry, the school not only survived but flourished. By the late 1990s, it had provided instruction to an astonishing 80,000 students. Doubtless some individuals enrolled simply to sit in a class taught by Mireille, an increasingly legendary artist, but of the students who completed the courses many went on to successful careers in France, Belgium and other Francophone nations, including such superstars as Hugues Aufray, Françoise Hardy , and Colette Magny . Despite these impressive results, Mireille remained modest, commenting simply, "It is always the students who teach me. I have never taught anyone anything. Charm and gouaille cannot be inculcated. What I can do is help, detect, talk."
Mireille's final years were rich in honors. She was invited to sing with such superstars as Georges Brassens, and at age 86, in 1991, she made her first video. In 1995, in one of her last public appearances, she gave an extraordinary solo performance at the Salle Gémier. Loyal fans were overjoyed to see her—"a still sparkling presence" in a Lacroix gown—singing song after favorite song while standing behind her trademark, a white grand piano. With Mireille's death in Paris on December 29, 1996, the French chanson lost one of its greatest creative spirits.
"Mireille," in The Times [London]. January 6, 1997, p. 21.
John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia