Yves Montand

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Wed Jun 13 09:19:49 MDT 2001

The New York Times, November 15, 1992, Sunday, Late Edition - Final

All About Yves

By Eugen Weber; Eugen Weber's most recent books are "Movements, Currents,
Trends" and "My France."

with Herve Hamon and Patrick Rotman.
Translated by Jeremy Leggatt.
Illustrated. 463 pp. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. $25.

BORN in October 1921 in a hardscrabble Tuscan hill village, Yves Montand
was just 70 when he died in November 1991, a national emblem in France and
an international celebrity. "You See, I Haven't Forgotten" is a fine
biography of a fine man: informative, balanced, and fortunate in a
translation by Jeremy Leggatt that is ingenious, sensitive, and practically
as readable as the original French.

The authors say it is at least partly an autobiography. The book's title
page lists Montand as the author, along with two Parisian writers, Herve
Hamon and Patrick Rotman. Mr. Hamon and Mr. Rotman say in the preface that
between 1988 and his death, Montand, who did not want to write a memoir,
responded so warmly when they suggested a biography that he deserves to be
seen as one of the authors. He gave them 200 hours of interviews and made
his papers, diaries and journals available to them even while they did
their own research and interviewing of other people. So, a hybrid book,
with many passages spoken by Montand himself.

Ivo Livi (with anti-Semitism rife, ill wishers and, not least, the Gestapo
during the Nazi occupation would ask if that was not Levi) went to France
from Italy when he was not yet 3 years old. His peasant father, a Communist
militant, had been driven out of his town and his country by the Fascists,
whose village leader was Giovanni Livi's own brother-in-law. Giovanni set
off for America, got as far as Marseilles, found himself a work permit, a
job and a shanty, and sent for his family. His wife, daughter and two sons
soon joined him (Ivo was the youngest), carrying meager belongings in
burlap sacks. The family was dirt poor but enterprising. Its Communist
commitment testified to that. So did its values: cleanliness, dignity, hard

In 1929 the Livis became French citizens -- just in time. Soon, depression
would sharpen xenophobic reactions against "macaroni" immigrants who
filched jobs and bread from their French neighbors.

BREAD, during those years of thin gruel and nagging hunger, was primordial,
and often scarce. To the end of his life Montand ate bread with everything,
even with pasta. His father's attempt to set up a small broom-making
enterprise ended in bankruptcy in 1932. The children worked as soon as they
could: the eldest boy became a Communist organizer like his father; the
girl, a hairdresser.

Ivo too worked in a hairdresser's salon. Named after the patron saint of
lawyers, he had been meant to join the bar, but he preferred the movies:
not the didactic populism of Jean Renoir or Julien Duvivier, but the high
spirits of American films, with stars like Fred Astaire and Gary Cooper. He
would be an actor. At 17 he was. Ivo Livi became Yves Montand, the stage
surname inspired by his mother's stentorian calls to come upstairs to the
table: "Ivo, monta!"

So, in the late 1930's, the school dropout turned hoofer, mimic and
songster celebrated in his music hall routines "Les Plaines du Far West"
and challenged hard times with a mindless trademark ditty: "I don't give a
damn, I don't give a damn / 'Cause I'm gonna get through. . . . Yeah!" ("Je
m'en fous, je m'en fous / Moi je tiens le coup. . . . Yeah!")

We are on the eve of war. The French economy recovers as rearmament sets
the factories humming and soaks up the unemployed. Then comes mobilization.
But Yves, too young for the army, has his own agenda: juggling one-night
stands, taming ferocious audiences, surmounting the never-dulled terror
involved in facing the footlights, planning the nightly combat. France is
defeated, his elder brother taken prisoner. Yves only escapes compulsory
labor service in Germany because his sister, Lydia, enlists the help of a
collaborating gangster. That close shave prompts a move from Marseilles to
Paris, where, in 1943, his act is a hit. Its swinging trans-Atlantic
rhythms and echoes wow audiences for whom swing, attacked by the Nazi
puppet Government in Vichy as American poison, evokes resistance and
American dreams. On the wings of swing and talent, the 22-year-old Montand
bounces up the hierarchy of Paris music halls and cabarets, lighted at that
time by feeble generators fed by valiant pedalers in the basement.

The war commands circumstances, but for the aspiring showman other
priorities take precedence: eating, staying warm, feeding the mouse that
shares his hotel room -- and love. In 1944 Montand meets Edith Piaf,
already a cabaret star, who feeds him songs, rubs off his rough edges and
gives his ascendant career a powerful shove forward. But growing
professional rivalry and Piaf's brief attention span for lovers cut the
affair short and leave the young man seared but singing.

In the France of the 30's Charles Trenet had launched himself in Al
Jolson's wake as the Singing Fool. Montand would be the Singing
Proletarian. Proles had long been the noble savages of the sensitive
classes. After the war they were canonized. Montand became their lyric
representative. But he would be more. And better.

The more famous the young comer grew, the farther he drew away from the
hearty, funny American models that had made his name. He became more
intellectual, more literary, more thoughtful, more interested in
edification than in recreation. The ideal of self-improvement inspired him,
as it had inspired his father. He read Henri Bergson ("On Laughter," of
course), Andre Gide, Andre Malraux, Jean-Paul Sartre and biographies of
Stalin. He met, read, eventually understood the charming, whimsical,
ruthlessly Marxist poet Jacques Prevert.

What was more professionally useful, he formed his own jazz group and
accumulated a supportive gang of friends, many of them foreigners like
himself, most of them populists like himself: little people eager to
celebrate little people, to feature "the easygoing France of Sunday cafes,
of sidewalks and canal barges, of lovers on riverbanks, of accordions and
cherry blossoms." These were recognizable images of a world fast drifting
off into the past, testimony that it's not what is that gives us pleasure
but what we think once was, or might have been.

Unlike Trenet, Piaf, Georges Brassens or Leo Ferre, Montand did not write
his own songs. But he worked on them tirelessly and made many of them his
own. Some of the best, like "Luna Park" or "Les Grands Boulevards,"
portrayed irreverent working people out for a bit of fun; others were
associated with youth, with love and with their aching exhilarations: "Les
Feuilles Mortes" ("Autumn Leaves") or one Piaf passed along to him as a
gift, "Mais Qu'est-ce Que J'ai a Tant l'Aimer?" ("What Can I Do?").

The singer would soar from national to international fame, culminating in
September 1982 with a one-man show at the Metropolitan Opera House. But Mr.
Hamon and Mr. Rotman have a lot more to tell: his meeting with Simone
Signoret, already a successful actress, married and a mother (the
punctilious Simone would always call him Montand, because Yves was also the
name of her first husband, the film director Yves Allegret); the rough
terrain their checkered but unflagging love had to negotiate between 1949
and her death in 1985; the country house (near that of Pierre
Mendes-France, the former Prime Minister) around which their life and gang
revolved -- a free environment where pretensions had to be checked at the
door and "no one was against the marriage of priests provided they loved
one another."

We learn about the painful hiccup of a notorious entanglement with Marilyn
Monroe; the long succession of insignificant beddings; and the last affair,
which, after Simone's death, led to remarriage and fatherhood -- all
handled with tact and common sense.

Montand's yearning to get into films also gets the attention it deserves:
the failures and half-failures before he made it in Henri-George Clouzot's
"Wages of Fear" in the early 50's, before he hit his cinematic stride in
the late 60's when he blazoned his mark on political cinema with the films
of Jorge Semprun and Costa-Gavras. Those, notably "The Confession" (1970),
were part of a larger story: Montand's passionate and familial attachment
to Communism, to the Soviet Union, to forces and authorities that for a
long time could do no wrong.

THOROUGHLY, painfully, the authors slog along with Montand on the long
march of fellow-traveling, the Stakhanovite feats of petition-signing, the
punishing ebb of good conscience that came from siding with the fire
against the fire brigade. One must not sneer at conformities that mirrored
loyalty to family, to friends, to the enthusiasms and commitments of young
adulthood. Montand's gradual questioning of, detachment from, rejection of
the family faith went with the disintegration of a tight family cell, with
venomous fights and a bitter break with his unreconstructed Communist
brother, who accused Yves of treading in the footsteps of the Fascist uncle
who had driven the family into exile.

Atonement, then -- of which "The Confession" was a part -- went with rage
and guilt. Yet the weaning did not mean a move toward the right. Rather, a
broadening of perspective followed, a more intense activism for human
rights be they threatened from left or right, an understanding that the
hopelessness of things does not diminish our responsibility to change them.

Interwoven with such themes is the most fascinating aspect of a fascinating
personality: the hard-working trouper phonetically learning English and
tirelessly exercising, the thoroughgoing perfectionist who was meticulous,
fastidious, endlessly inventive, working and reworking every movement, step
or act, assimilating not only songs but also gestures, polishing every
nuance, turning effort in rehearsal to spontaneity on the stage, never
giving up, hardly ever relaxing, prowling around every possibility,
perpetually anguished, never free of stage fright -- the terror of
performers who go on without a safety net. "He understood Jacques Brel, who
vomited every night before the curtain went up," the authors write. And he
went to immense lengths to diminish the risk of vomiting after the curtain
went down.

Mr. Hamon and Mr. Rotman have given us a Montand full of curiosity,
generosity, passion, vanity and grace, "sly and naive, selfish and
endearing, brave and fearful, enthusiastic and hot-tempered." Above all,
they have portrayed a working life: enormous labor, great seriousness, a
lot of pain, a lot of laughs and friendship. Montand was a professional.
What finer epitaph, with professionalism so rare in all trades in our time?

Louis Proyect
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