Printemps, Yvonne (1894–1977)

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Printemps, Yvonne (1894–1977)

Famed French actress of stage and screen. Name variations: Yvonne Wignolle. Born on July 25, 1894, in Ermont, France; died on January 19, 1977, in Paris, France; daughter of Leon Wignolle and Palmire Wignolle; married Sacha Guitry (a playwright), in 1919 (divorced 1934); no children.

Yvonne Printemps was born Yvonne Wignolle to a poor family in Ermont, near Paris, in 1894. Her father abandoned the family when she was a few years old, and her mother struggled to provide for her three children. Printemps received a cursory education at a girls' school near Ermont. At age 11, she joined a local theater troupe. Drawn to the stage immediately, Printemps began to help support her family in 1907 by working in Paris vaudeville theater as a dancer. When her vocal talent was discovered, she became a performer at the Folies-Bergère, where she would remain for four years; her mother, abandoned by a second husband, moved to Paris to oversee Printemps' stage career. It was at the Folies-Bergère that her beauty and cheerful disposition earned her the nickname Printemps (springtime), and she quickly adopted it both as a stage and legal name. By 1912, her dancing had brought her steady work, and she undertook voice and acting lessons. Over the next seven years, she performed in comedies, dramas, and operas across Paris, becoming its most celebrated female performer. She had numerous love affairs with her co-stars and admirers, and in 1916 fell in love with the celebrated French playwright and actor Sacha Guitry, who was married at the time of their affair. Following his divorce from his first wife, actress Charlotte Lysès , he and Printemps were wed in 1919.

It was this marriage which truly made Printemps a star; she performed as the lead in dozens of plays and musicals which Guitry wrote, produced, and often co-starred in. Her voice was described by critics as "exquisite" and "heavenly." Their 1926 production of Guitry's Mozart, with Printemps playing the young composer, was especially successful. They took the play first to London, then to Boston, Montreal, and finally enjoyed a long run in New York in 1927.

However, while their careers were flourishing, Printemps and Guitry's marriage was failing, and their relationship became primarily professional. By 1932, they had separated, and they were divorced in 1934. Although the immediate cause of the breakup was Yvonne's affair with a younger co-star, Pierre Fresnay, Printemps had for several years wanted to free herself from Guitry's increasingly jealous and domineering

personality. After the divorce, she returned to England at the request of playwright Noel Coward, who wanted her to appear in his new play, Conversation Piece, in a leading role he had written for her. She agreed only on the condition that Fresnay be cast as her leading man. Although they would never marry, her often rocky relationship with Fresnay would last until his death in 1974.

As Printemps spoke no English, she learned her role in Conversation Piece phonetically, but the critics were enthusiastic about her performance. The play then opened on Broadway in New York City, where she was welcomed by American audiences. Returning to France, Printemps established a new career as a star in the French cinema. She had performed as Camille (Alphonsine Plessis ) in one minor film in 1934 (La Dame aux Camelias), but her first starring role in a major film was in Les Trois Valses (Three Waltzes) in 1938. Again Fresnay costarred. The film was an immediate success and brought Printemps national celebrity. However, also in 1938 she reaffirmed her long association with the Parisian stage, when she and Fresnay agreed to take over the Michodière Theater. Together they served as business and artistic managers of the theater for the next 45 years. The couple spent the years of World War II in Paris, trying to keep the theater open even during the hardship and uncertainty of the German occupation of France. They produced and often cast themselves in the plays, believing they had an almost patriotic obligation to try to continue Paris' cultural life as much as possible.

Their stage work continued after the war. When the French cinema was revived, Printemps and Fresnay were eager to star again. In 1948, they made Le Valse de Paris (The Paris Waltz). Again the critics raved about Printemps' beauty, her charm, her voice, even though at age 54 she was older than most female film stars. Once again she returned to the Paris stage, which she would in many ways dominate for another ten years. Her continuing versatility and ability to play roles of varying age, despite poor health, preserved her critical and popular success until she retired from acting in 1959, at age 65. However, she continued her work behind the scenes with Fresnay as co-director of the Michodière throughout the 1960s and early 1970s.

Her friends and fans admired Printemps' spirit and wit, though many also remembered her as often selfish, demanding, and vulgar. She conducted many short-lived love affairs during her life with Fresnay, as did he, which took a toll on their relationship but did not destroy it. Printemps was devastated when Fresnay died of a heart attack in 1974. She became deeply depressed and her own health failed rapidly. She died on January 19, 1977, at age 82, and was buried next to Fresnay in a Parisian cemetery. Her admirers fulfilled her final wishes to honor Fresnay by naming a theater in Ermont after him. On the centennial of her birth in 1994, the French government issued a commemorative postal stamp in Yvonne Printemps' honor.


Dufresne, Claude. Yvonne Printemps: Le doux parfum de péché. Paris: Perrin, 1988.

Knapp, Bettina. Sacha Guitry. Boston, MA: Twayne, 1981.

Laura York , Riverside, California