French singer-dancer who was one of her nation's best-known entertainers. Born Jeanne-Marie Bourgeois on April 5, 1875 (some sources cite 1873), in Enghien, France; died on January 5, 1956, at her home near Paris; daughter of a mattress manufacturer and a seamstress; had a brother, Marcel; children: (with a Brazilian named de Lima) one son, Léopold (born out of wedlock in 1900).
After studying singing and dance in Paris as a teenager, made her first appearance on a music-hall stage (1893); by the outbreak of World War I (1917), had become one of the most popular and highly paid Parisian music-hall performers, known for her elaborately produced shows with their earthy humor, gaudy costumes, and semi-nudity; between the two World Wars (1919–39), became France's best-known entertainer and attracted audiences in Britain and the U.S. as well; continued performing well into her 70s until ill health forced her retirement from the stage (1950s).
Mistinguett was the most recognizable woman in France during the first half of the 20th century, admired by millions of French men for her beautifully sculptured legs and by an equal number of French women for her luxurious wardrobe and ebullient lifestyle. More intimate acquaintances loved her with passionate admiration, trembled at her formidable temper, and swarmed around her to receive the bounty of her sexual and material favors. Mistinguett was the "Queen of the Paris night," ruling over a realm of smoky music halls and casinos where rough-edged audiences shouted and whistled and threw money on the stage, and in which the entertainment featured plenty of exposed flesh and bawdy humor. She emerged from this tumultuous milieu as both superstar and national icon, a "spiritual diva," wrote Colette , "who possesses the most beautiful legs in Paris and the most gracious smile in the whole world."
The public was the most exacting of all my lovers.
To the villagers of Enghien, a country town not far from Paris, she had been simply Jeanne-Marie Bourgeois, the mischievous daughter of a local mattress manufacturer and a seamstress, born on April 5, 1875. The future for little "Jeannot," as she was nicknamed, seemed as bleak as that of any child raised in a poor country town by indifferent parents occupied with earning a living. Monsieur Bourgeois put his daughter to work stuffing mattresses when she was barely of school age. Then there was Madame Bourgeois' sewing and "feather dressing" business, where an extra pair of hands was always needed, especially after the birth of a brother, Marcel. "My mother … was very fashionable and liked to wear enormous hats," Mistinguett later wrote, two traditions the younger woman would dedicate her life to propagating. "She gossiped a lot and was forever talking to herself, pretending that she was on the stage. The thing is, she would have made a very good actress." Jeannot's childhood was thrown into further turmoil when her father died of tetanus after gashing his arm on a length of rusty chicken wire.
Fortunately, there were occasional distractions. One was Jeannot's Parisian aunt, Tante Florentine, with whom she was sent to stay during school holidays. Tante Florentine was fond of horses, more particularly of the money that could be made betting on them, and often took her niece with her to the auctions and race tracks that surrounded Paris and into the cafés and bistros peopled by hustlers, ne'er-do-wells, and hangers-on. An uncle who played violin in several music-hall orchestras completed Jeannot's early education in the French demimonde. Then, too, there were boys, in whom Jeannot took an early and enthusiastic interest. She claimed to have lost her virginity at 15 but remembered little about it except that she had been chewing licorice root at the time and had difficulty deciding where to spit out the juice.
The catalyst for Jeannot's future fame came on the day Madame Bourgeois sent her daughter to deliver a bill to a music-hall singer of some repute, Anna Thibaud , who had recently taken a house in Enghien and had availed herself of Madame Bourgeois' interior decorating talents. Like other famous chanteuses of the day, Thibaud was accompanied in her travels by a retinue of mostly male admirers who saw to her needs while trading on their attachment to her. A later age would have called them "groupies." Jeannot, entranced by the gaiety and high spirits filling the Thibaud ménage, revealed her dreams of being an actress only to be greeted with hoots of derision and Thibaud's unsympathetic opinion that she was too ugly for the stage. Jeannot never forgot the cruel taunts and, as if to prove Thibaud wrong, was soon staging her own musical entertainments in her father's old mattress shop, enlisting her friends as talent and her mother as the scenery and costume designer. Her version of Moliére's Le Medecin Malgré Lui, in which she cast her girlfriends in all the male parts, was the talk of Enghien.
Madame Bourgeois, convinced that her daughter's musical talents might prove profitable, promptly arranged for violin lessons with a teacher in Paris; but Jeannot found the lessons boring and her fellow students, who were from more affluent and sophisticated homes, patronizing. Her teacher's opinion that she would not be ready to perform publicly for at least ten years hastened Jeannot's decision to quit the violin, take singing lessons instead, and adopt her first nom de théatre by using the name of the railroad stop in Enghien. The newly christened "Princesse de la Pointe-Raquet," when not studying her scales and vibrato in a classroom off the Champs Elysée, sang with her classmates on street corners, or in the Jardin des Tuileries and the nearby Place de la Concorde. She dutifully returned home to Enghien each night, but sometimes not before visiting Paris' many bistros and "café-concerts," choosing Alice Ozy as her favorite musical-hall performer. It was a wise choice, for Ozy would return the compliment many times over.
Ozy sang, danced, and played the flute in her act at the Eldorado with grace, wit, and a remarkably even temper, considering the rowdy nature of her audiences, the male members of
which would often crowd the stage with sexual taunts and hopeful offers of money for an assignation between shows. Jeannot's admiration inspired her to adopt many of Ozy's mannerisms and eventually to ask for an introduction. Unlike Thibaud, Alice Ozy felt that the tall, round-faced village girl might have a talent for the stage, and began spending a few minutes each day teaching Jeannot deportment and stage technique. Before long, Ozy had introduced Jeannot to her agent-producer, Monsieur Saint-Marcel. It was Saint-Marcel who gave Jeannot her second stage name, "Miss Helyett," the name of a character in one of Ozy's musical revues; and it was Saint-Marcel who found Jeannot her first public appearances in small bistros, where "Miss Helyett" would be given one song and any tips that an audience might care to bestow. Mistinguett would never forget the lessons she learned before these working-class audiences who demanded diverting entertainment and a glimpse of the good life for their hard-earned francs. "She played to the galleries, not the stalls," one acquaintance noted at the height of Mistinguett's career.
Even during these early years, the future Mistinguett attracted attention for the playful sexual banter that had made the dignified matrons of Enghien blush, and for the physical agility with which she moved about the stage. Then, too, there were her handmade costumes, sprouting feathers and twinkling with sequins, and the enormous, complex hats that put anything her mother had designed to shame. The most famous of them was a creation in astrakhan and silver ribbon, sporting two stuffed birds which Jeannot had trapped and prepared herself. Although the hat attracted swarms of flies during Paris' humid summers, it became so famous that a noted fashion designer of the time sketched her wearing it and included it in a published volume of his drawings.
In 1893, Saint-Marcel offered Jeannot her first major booking and the name by which she would be known to the world. Saint-Marcel was that year writing a new revue for the Casino de Paris, one of the city's most popular and elegant music halls, and a far cry from the smaller, rowdier halls which Jeannot had been playing. These smaller clubs were known in Parisian slang as guinguettes. Jeannot, thrilled at Saint-Marcel's offer of a song in his new show at such a famous venue, immediately announced she would change her name for the occasion to "Miss Guinguette." Saint-Marcel shortened it and sent her on stage as "Mistinguett" with the number he had written for her. "I'm the Casino Kid!," Mistinguett musically announced at her entrance,
Fresh as a poppy,
But shapely and laughing
And always having fun!
Saint-Marcel, complaining that her voice was weak and difficult to hear over the orchestra and the din of admiring shouts and whistles from her audience, suggested she study more famous artists and copy their style. Mistinguett refused. "If I was a second rate star, at least I was myself," she later said.
Of more concern to Saint-Marcel was the company his young client was keeping, particularly Louis Leplée, known as much for his drug dealing and male prostitution as for his musichall act. It was Leplée who convinced Mistinguett to forsake Enghien and move permanently to Paris, where he set about introducing her to the seedy nocturnal world centered around the Place Pigalle and Montmartre. By the turn of the century, Mistinguett had acquired her own bevy of fawning male admirers, many of whom fought among themselves for the right to sleep on the floor of her bedroom or, as the ultimate reward, in her bed. Now the toast of the Parisian demimonde, Mistinguett attracted even more attention during an engagement at Le Trianon, where an impatient male patron unable to hear her voice shouted out "Higher!" Mistinguett obligingly hiked her skirts to the very limits of decency and shouted back, "How much higher do you want it to go?" Although some shocked patrons left the hall in protest, the resulting publicity pleased the house manager to such an extent that he doubled Mistinguett's salary.
Thoroughly alarmed at this turn of events, Saint-Marcel sent her on a tour of the provinces only to discover that tout Paris was clamoring for her return. Mistinguett's notoriety meant even better bookings at prominent clubs like L'Alcazar d'Eté and La Cigale, patronized by the best society. The prince of Wales, the future Edward VII, was a passionate admirer, as was the "fat, slovenly Englishman," she recalled, who paid an adoring visit to her dressing room. She remained unimpressed when he introduced himself as Oscar Wilde, in exile after his English disgrace and soon to meet his end in a lonely Paris hotel room. Another suitor was a wealthy Brazilian named de Lima who, Mistinguett announced in 1900, was the father of the child she was carrying. She saw pregnancy as no reason to leave the stage and continued performing until three months before the birth of a son, Léopold, whom de Lima agreed to raise in Brazil while Mistinguett set about solidifying her career.
Now sufficiently in demand to negotiate with producers and casino owners herself, she fired Saint-Marcel and set about her steady climb to the top of Parisian theatrical life by cleaning up what had become a decidedly soiled reputation. She left the Place Pigalle behind for more genteel quarters near the Gare de l'Est, jettisoned questionable friends like Leplée (whose later murder would be the talk of Paris), and refined her personal habits as much as she could stand, although sacrificing an active sex life was not among her penances. "Sex is the only habit I never wanted to give up," she declared. "It is good for the figure and the soul."
She began frequenting more sophisticated clubs where wealthier promoters could be found. One of them sent her on a tour of Russia, while another offered her a part in a show opening in Brussels and, after assuring himself that Mistinguett could now restrain herself on stage, a part in what became her first commercial success, Coup de Jarnac. Soon producers and songwriters were writing shows especially for her and mounting them at the most opulent music halls Paris could offer, while Mistinguett's public and private life became inextricably bound. "It's been hard putting on an act twenty-four hours a day," she confessed. Even her many lovers were chosen with her public in mind. "The ideal partner," she said, "is the one who makes the public say 'They go well together,' and not the one you personally like the most."
In 1909, Mistinguett and one of her "ideal partners," dancer Max Dearly, took Paris by storm with their valse chaloupée, which became known to English audiences as the "Apache Dance." Dearly, notorious for his physically abusive affairs with women, had created a violently erotic pas de deux depicting a fight between a menacing thug and a prostitute from whom he steals money. During the course of the dance, the female partner is thrown to the floor, tossed in the air, and eventually dragged from the stage for an implied sexual assault. Rehearsals with Dearly often ended in bruises and cuts and, in one instance, a split lip, not to mention a number of ripped short skirts and broken high heels that Dearly made a part of the act. The dance was first presented in July 1909 at Le Moulin Rouge, the audience's titillation being heightened by what appeared to be a very real hatred between Mistinguett and Dearly, who dragged her offstage by the hair as the curtain came down to thunderous applause. To heighten the public's awareness of the act, Mistinguett would often excoriate Dearly in public; but privately, she confessed to a great deal of respect for her partner. "[The Apache Dance] came at a period in my life when I was pitched between the theater and the music hall, at a time when I did not know which way to turn," she later said, describing Dearly as "a great artiste. Compared to him," she said, "I was nothing."
Mistinguett and Dearly performed their valse chaloupée periodically over the next ten years. Their relationship ended when Mistinguett refused to appear with him in London because of a more lucrative offer in Paris. She had, in fact, become increasingly more difficult as her popularity and power soared. She was known to break contracts, leave a show with no notice if something better came along, and torment set designers and choreographers with her shrill demands and relentless perfectionism. She was addressed with fearful respect as "La Miss." Acquaintances fervently hoped that the pattern might be broken when it became obvious that Mistinguett had fallen in love with a young singer and dancer whom she set about promoting. His name was Maurice Chevalier.
Chevalier, the son of a suburban Paris housepainter, was 23 at the time and had been singing and dancing since his teens. His tenuous voice and mediocre dancing were overcome by the spontaneous charm of his stage manner, the very essence of the dapper, carefree boulevardier. "He put a song over as if he were humming it to himself for pleasure," Mistinguett said, "with a rhythm and sureness that took my breath away." Because of Mistinguett's attentions to his career and his person, Chevalier would become France's most famous international entertainer with a stage, radio, and film career that would eclipse her own and continue for some 20 years after her death.
He had been just one of her many dressingroom admirers, however, sometimes even occupying a lower spot on the same bill with her, until Mistinguett was offered a lucrative contract to produce and star in a new musical extravaganza at the Folies Bergère in 1911. Mistinguett invented a new dance for the production, not as violent or erotic as Dearly's but every bit as athletic. She called it la valse renversante (the "topsy-turvy" waltz), and decided her partner would be the handsome young Chevalier, more than ten years her junior. The complicated choreography required the two of them to leap on top of tables, sending bottles and glasses flying; to somersault and cartwheel across the stage as chairs and people scattered; and, at the end, to run at each other from opposite sides of the stage, dive to the floor, and wrap themselves in a carpet. During extensive rehearsals, Mistinguett later claimed, she taught Chevalier everything she knew about stage deportment and mannerisms. "In those days, he was a great, shy, unsophisticated lad," Mistinguett wrote in her memoirs, "completely wrapped up in his own dreams. He would never have gotten anywhere without me." Their love affair was passionate and very public, Chevalier even confiding to male friends that Mistinguett's hand would be firmly attached to a particularly sensitive part of his anatomy as they lay together wrapped in the carpet at the end of their act.
Mistinguett's Folies Bergère revue opened in December 1911 to great acclaim and temporarily took Parisians' minds off the dangerously explosive state of affairs on the Continent. Equally diverting was a number of popular operettas in which she appeared in increasingly complex and startling costumes, one production requiring no less than 12 changes. She explored the new medium of film during these years, too, playing in 14 silent movies between 1913 and 1916, often in the kind of rags-to-riches role that reflected her own life. But she confessed to a certain discomfort before "that machine with a glass eye," with its unforgiving gaze and none of the feedback she expected from a live audience. "I don't much like making films," she complained. "The director is in control too much of the time, and not Mistinguett."
At the outbreak of war in August 1914, Chevalier was among the hundreds of thousands of French citizens called to duty, much to Mistinguett's distress. Even the arrival from Brazil of her son Lèopold, now 14 years old, failed to console her. A successful tour of Italy just before that country entered the war as a French ally, during which she was hailed as a symbol of French resistance to German imperialism, also did little to dispel her depression. Although she had once declared that her lovers "had very little meaning" offstage, Chevalier was the exception to her rule. For the first time in her career, she burst into tears on stage during a 1915 benefit concert for wounded soldiers in Paris as she sang:
I feel small, so small
No one sees me,
Or knows I'm there.
I know now that
There's no sunshine or light
For poor folk like us!
In January 1916, Mistinguett learned that Chevalier had been wounded and was being held in a German prisoner-of-war camp. Frantic, and unable to obtain the necessary documents to visit him, Mistinguett managed to wrest a promise of his release by means of an extraordinary appeal to Alphonso XIII, the king of neutral Spain and an ardent fan. But as she traveled to Geneva to meet Chevalier, French authorities had been alerted that a popular entertainer was spying for the Germans and accused her of such treacherous behavior. She was allowed to continue on her journey only when chanteuse Margaretha Gertrud Zelle was revealed as the notorious Mata Hari and was executed. In Geneva, the Germans refused to release Chevalier unless Mistinguett became the next Mata Hari, to which she agreed only after secretly making a deal with the French to act as a double-spy—a daring maneuver which backfired and left her in the hands of the Germans and scheduled to be shot. Her life was saved at the last moment when her release was exchanged for that of several German wives and daughters being held in France. Arriving back in Paris, Mistinguett was reunited at last with Chevalier. But she soon discovered that the war had taken its toll on their relationship. Chevalier had suffered a nervous collapse during his captivity and now found that Paris audiences had forgotten all about him. "He knew he would have to go back to square one with his career," Mistinguett later wrote. "I never minded helping him, and I tried to ignore the fact that when he finally found the one thing he had been searching for, he would not be sharing it with me." Nonetheless, Chevalier's career was resuscitated largely through the efforts of Mistinguett, who refused lucrative deals from producers unless Chevalier's name was also on the marquee next to hers. But by 1918 and the end of the war, Chevalier had left her for actress Léonie Bathiat, who had taken the stage name Arletty . "His absence dominated the rest of my life," Mistinguett wrote bitterly years later. "I never found a single reason to justify loving him. He used me, and as soon as he got what he wanted, he dumped me."
The former lovers did not appear on stage together for a year, after Mistinguett's first appearance in New York, which began badly when it was discovered that several of her costumes had been left behind in France. She failed to ignite Broadway audiences and returned home after only a month. She and Chevalier shared the same bill in the 1919 revue Paris Qui Danse, the start of a long series of Paris Qui … revues distinguished as being the first to include complete female nudity. A second Broadway appearance in 1936 met with greater success, but while Chevalier's fame spread internationally, Mistinguett's remained mostly confined to France and its colonial outposts. Even on her home ground, she was being eclipsed by younger talent, most famously the American Josephine Baker . Baker's dark skin generously displayed in costumes Mistinguett could never have imagined 20 years earlier mesmerized and entranced Parisian audiences, but Mistinguett declared Baker's act vulgar. "One day, sex will take over," she said primly. Nearing 60 and unable to compete with the bared breasts and naked bottoms of the new crop of revues, Mistinguett now found herself a nostalgic symbol of what life had been like before the war, in the heady days of la belle époque. In what was generally considered the best of her revues, 1938's Féerie de Paris at the Casino de Paris, Mistinguett—wearing 40 pounds of feathers, trailing a 20-foot train, and balancing a 7-foot-tall headdress—still managed to descend a silver stairway at her entrance with her usual elegant grace. Her opening number, Je Cherche un Millionaire, became the bestselling recording in France that year and had sold more than five million copies by the time World War II erupted in 1939.
She was on her way back from a tour of Argentina when France declared war on Germany for the second time in less than 30 years. "I was too old to be used as a spy," Mistinguett recalled almost 20 years later. "The only way I could [help boost morale] was by entertaining." But as the Germans pressed closer to Paris, Mistinguett decided to forsake her beloved city and move to Antibes, on the French Côte d'Azur, taking care to exchange all her francs for gold ingots and bury them in the garden of Bougival, her home just outside the capital city. She spent a year in the south, much talked about by the locals for her boisterous, colorful entourage and her loud parties, but a year away from the stage and her audiences was too much for her. She returned to German-occupied Paris in 1941, weeping at the sight of the huge swastika flying from the Arc de Triomphe.
Much has been written about the Parisian artistic community's relations with the city's occupiers, and Mistinguett, along with Chevalier and many of her colleagues, was suspected by some of collaborating with the Nazis during the war. But, as was the case with Chevalier, Mistinguett appears guilty of nothing more than a passive resistance to the Germans. While Josephine Baker smuggled Resistance messages in her sheet music and Edith Piaf used her mobility to deliver fake identity papers to prisoners of war, Mistinguett merely continued performing. She did speak out against the collaborationist administration of Pierre Laval, and often hid anti-Hitler and pro-Resistance messages in the dense Parisian argot in which her songs were written. She was never accused publicly after the war of collaborating. (Indeed, the only performer actually to be found guilty was Arletty, Chevalier's former lover, who had carried on an affair during the war years with a German officer.) When victorious Resistance troops marched down the Champs Elysée in the summer of 1944, Mistinguett donned full stage regalia to bicycle alongside the soldiers shouting "Vive de Gaulle!" The men roared back, "Vive La Miss!"
Although she was 65 at war's end and was suffering from a painful knee ailment, Mistinguett carried on with as much enthusiasm as before the conflict. She brought her new show to Britain, toured Morocco, and, in 1949, opened in the last of her Paris Qui … revues at the Casino de Paris, Paris Qui S'Amuse. At her entrance, the entire hall rose to its feet to applaud her, one spectator said, "as if greeting the President himself." Despite two minor heart attacks, an appendectomy, and a hysterectomy, Mistinguett departed for a North American tour early in 1951, opening in Montreal and traveling to Broadway in April. "A star's life," she wrote in her memoirs published in 1954, "should be one long performance." In 1955, however, even Mistinguett realized that 60 years on the stage was long enough for anyone. There was no official announcement of her retirement, merely the news that the great entertainer had decided on a much-needed rest at Bougival. Friends realized the end was near when, late that year, Mistinguett took to her bed and refused visits from all but the closest of her acquaintances. On January 5, 1956, she died of a cerebral hemorrhage. Mistinguett was buried in Enghien after lying in state at Paris' Eglise de la Madeleine, not far from the Place de la Concorde, where she had sung in the streets as a young girl.
"How I will miss her!" lamented Chevalier; while those present at her deathbed reported that Mistinguett's own affection for Chevalier remained to the end. "He was the best of them all!," she had sighed. But there was one amour which superseded even Chevalier. "My real lovers are the ones I've never seen—the men and women sitting there, up in the gallery," she once said. "I belonged to the public, because I owed them everything."
Bret, David. The Mistinguett Legend. London: Robson Books, 1990.
Mistinguett. Mistinguett: Queen of the Paris Night. Translated by Lucienne Hill. London: Elek Books, 1954.
Norman Powers , writer-producer, Chelsea Lane Productions, New York