Maurice Chevalier: I Remember Him Well
Chevalier — the name itself fascinates. In French, it means “knight”; in English, a chevalier, the prince of love that Maurice Chevalier was in Gigi, in films long before Gigi, maybe even in real life.
Maurice Chevalier was born on 12 September 1888; he died 1 January 1972. His life was the stuff of legend, of controversy (true controversy, not the contrived farces of today), and of more than one image that he could not shake, and so he did not try. He was a smart man, a very smart Frenchman, and I wish I’d see more of his cut in modern times.
Chevalier began his show business career as a boy, singing and dancing in cafés, or cabarets, in Paris, the City of Lights where he was born. It was a rough life, working music halls and menial jobs. He found love, off-stage, and on, and he ascended — to the bright lights of the stage, applause, fame.
Post-Great War Paris was the setting for his stage act at the Casino de Paris, where he concocted his stage persona: the effervescent, debonair French male, attired in tuxedo; le canotier, the straw hat; and bow tie; and, for the impeccable added touch — the cane.
The mere act of coming up with that act was, in itself, the crème du geste, the best thing he could have done, the right thing at the right moment at the right time. Chevalier then took his act on the road, performing in Marseille and London. The talent in this young man was obvious, but he shrewdly knew how to diversify his acts in the music halls of the time, learning jazz and ragtime, adding mime and comedy to his song-and-dance routines. He was a king of many trades, master of all.
In the early 1920s, Chevalier toured the United States and, with a sense of timing that was probably now a basic part of his act, he met George Gershwin and Irving Berlin. In 1922 he starred on Broadway in an operetta named Dédé and he thereby added acting to his theatrical resumé. And, as They say, he was on his way — to Hollywood in 1928 where he showed the American film industry how a Frenchman in a talkie should sound.
Not to his surprise, Chevalier was nominated in 1930 for the Academy Award for Best Actor for his roles in The Love Parade and The Big Pond. (I do not know why this actor was nominated for 1 Award due to his performance in 2 roles in 2 separate films.) This Frenchman used these roles to develop for the American audience his screen image as the archetypical Parisian lover. From that point on, this image and Maurice Chevalier were forever fused.
Chevalier used his perfect Parisian accent to perfection, exaggerating it to the point where people, especially American males, used imitations of his exaggeration as the real thing. It was comical for me to hear male friends try to impress me with their French, launching into fairly flawless renditions of Monsieur Chevalier. They lacked only the cane, bow tie, and straw boater hat!
He was an original. He knew his Paris of the Pre-World Wars era so well that quite without intending to, he became the expert of the epoch. The fact that his reputation suffered from unsubstantiated charges of collaborating with the Nazis during World War II did not embitter this Frenchman, but it did give him pause as to just what to think of his fellow Frenchmen.
Chevalier came out of that horrible period with the sentiments that he expressed in Gigi, but I believe that a part of the debonair display was a magnificent but nonetheless quite personal display. A vital, intimate part of the Paris that he had loved had left — not merely him, but Paris, and France. He knew the loss was severe.
This patriotic man loved France, and Paris, in a scintillating way that the younger generations of this weary nation of wars and post-wars would never comprehend. He was too old for many people to understand the type of world and the type of France that a Charles de Gaulle had also inhabited. Chevalier, however, did not get much of a chance to explain that the best thing that he could have done for his patrie during World War II was to be all that he was, all that he had been, in order to try to shore up the sinking ship that was Occupied France.
That person was an entertainer, a man of the stage, of theatre, of film, of singing and, above all, of ACTING. I wonder if enough French of the post-war purge understood this reality about the drama of The Dark Years: The finest acting roles that Maurice Chevalier, and many other French (actors and non-actors) performed, that role required them to put on the masks of indifference, to display the faces of nonchalance, to offer the shrug of aloof ennui — to any and all Germans who would kill them merely for their love of France.
When I was a child, I used to watch Maurice Chevalier on the American tv shows that featured him: Ed Sullivan, The Hollywood Palace, musical variety shows. He had tarnished quietly from his days of lustre on the Silver Screen. He looked happy and sad, young and old, a free-hearted spirit with both too much heart and too little spirit, a slightly broken man who remained unbroken in a steely way. There was about him a gentle way of remembering times that would never be again. It was more than a touch heartbreaking for me to see this elderly man about whom I knew so little, but sensed so much.
He was born the same year as my beloved grandmother, Ida Mae. He outlived her by 4 years. The child in me always understood the dignified, decent people of that era, a time of forbearance and tradition that nonetheless permitted the individual more than enough freedom to frolic and frivole in the serious matters of life, even as that person held very close to his heart every one of those serious matters.
That balancing act took a remarkable degree of integrity and maturity for those individuals. Their acceptance of self was the result of rejecting the slightest hint of the self-absorption that mars so many Moderns as they obsess over the fundamentals in life to which those “outmoded” individuals surrendered, simply as part of living life.
The world they knew was often falling apart at the seams: pre-war, post-war, between-wars, the cease-fires that predicted wars. The cycle of war became a way of life. They did not war within themselves, though. Each person felt a deep sense of identity that guided him or her from an early age to a ripe old age.
In between their youths and the winters of their lives were the myriad rich seasons that were spent in mellowly ripening their fruit on the vine, not wasting it or letting it rot. These people knew how to savor whatever they had. They did not waste time chasing after what they could not have. Even Monsieur Chevalier knew well enough to leave well enough alone if La Femme sought her pleasures elsewhere. He might have thought her a fool, and she very well might have been a fool; but, then again, he was all the better man, and all the better off, for her rejection of his chivalry and nobility!
That generation, if I might generalize about those old folks, understood life and death and all of the ultimate pleasures and passions and dolors and uncertainties in between those two certainties. They comprehended love, in all of its facets. They knew the truths of growing old, and of staying young. They looked at loss as part of life, and they did not complain, at least not out loud, about their losses. They did not rail against society, or form support groups, or network for action or justice or peace, or, the catch-all for the most myopic of all, agitate for awareness.
“Awareness of what?” these old fogies would have gaily asked. They were too busy living life to analyze it to death.
And if living life incurred mistakes and injustices, and it surely did, they did not then go in search of a lawyer to get a remedy or revenge, reward or resolution. They took their lumps and grew from them. They learned their hard lessons but they did not grow hard, or bitter, as a result of those lessons. Indeed, they revered those lessons, and those lessons revered them. It was an unspoken code that they lived, a sensibility that life would teach them whatever they needed to learn, God-willing. And if God did not will it, each of them tried to accept that command as a gesture of good-will, not as a harsh refusal to grant to them whatever they’d foolishly believed their heart had desired.
Their hearts were large and filled with light, but that light saw more than its share of shadow. That shadow loved light, loved the interplay of evening shade and morning sun. Because of their intimate chiaroscuro, these stout individuals were soft to the touch, with backbones like steel.
If they ever felt sorry for themselves, they kept those miserable feelings to themselves. They conquered self-pity like it was Mount Everest, and from that height of dignity, they ruled their days and their nights like kings and queens.
Somehow, they found supreme contentment in all the small joys of life, the little things that mean so much because these individuals knew those humble comforts and simple pleasures could all too quickly be taken from them, or broken, or destroyed, or imperiled by forces beyond their control. They keenly understood so many of those forces beyond their control, and they thereby surrendered to the Force that granted them solace within those moments when they felt savage pain and irreparable anguish. In that way, they were also given unending bliss during their treasured moments of delight and rapture.
They thus endeavored to accept heartache, even heart-break, calamity, fear, and bereavement. And they prevailed over those emotional fences of barbed wire, those thorny thickets of tribulation, with whispers of tears and the set jaws that determined a better fate lay ahead of them, beyond the catastrophe.
They believed that life would go on, somewhere in the mystery of time that could be taken from them any minute, through influenza or a street-car gone awry, or a horse rearing up and crushing them without warning. Their wills were strong, and silent, like deep dark waters. They grew old, with grace and dignity, and thus they stayed forever young. They bore infirmity and illness with more silence than I’ve ever heard in recent years from the aging pampered generations of modernity.
I recall my sick, old grandmother looking at the sadnesses that surrounded her, and shrugging to me. She’d glance at me and I would wonder, with the feeling silence of a small child, what was within that glance that seemingly never spoke. My grandmother was a curiously quiet woman. Her sphinx-like silence may be one reason why I became a writer.
It is only now that I realize all of the wisdom that she spoke to me with her round blue eyes when I was a child. I was not meant to know those truths of life until I had lived enough of life, of my life, and therein lay the gifts of her unspoken contemplative advice, her benevolent wordless wisdom.
She knew that I had to seek my path, and she trusted that God would care for me while I was searching for the happiness that she never found. It has always been with a sense of duty to her, but not a loss of her, that I contemplate her, and her life, and her death. I’d long believed that her life represented an era, a part of America that I would not be seeing again in the near, or even distant, future.
It is a test of my faith, and a testament to faith, that I venture to say that the days of unashamed patriotism and love of God that she, and Chevalier, enjoyed — those tranquilly glorious days have begun to return to this land, even to a faraway France, those nations where, during truly belles époques, individuals did not hesitate to revere the elders who knew so well the truths that youths could only hope to guess, at best.
I am most fortunate to have been born so late in the lives of stellar individuals who taught me so very much when I was a child. They taught me the truths of life that some people never learn, never want to learn. They educated me in ways that I am still learning to understand, to emulate, to adore. Those seasoned campaigners of life and of love taught me the eternal lessons of youth because they were forever young.
They were a remarkable group, these individuals born in the late 1800s. Victorians, they were pejoratively called. I call them quiet heroines and even quieter heroes. They were Princesses of Passion and Princes of Love, the people who perhaps shall never be again.
I am most likely wrong. Maurice would tell me that I am taking it all too seriously. As Uncle Lachaille in Gigi, he would cheerfully suggest: Have a piece of cheese.
I tip my hat to Monsieur Chevalier and I avow my thoughts:
The days that were, they are mere rehearsals for what will be. The glories of the past are preparations for the grandeur of the future.
As always, I listen to my forebears, especially those born during la Belle Époque in France and the Gilded Age of post-Civil War America. Those individuals were Individuals.
And I remember them well.
These quotes from Maurice Chevalier are ones to remember well:
— Many a man has fallen in love with a girl in a light so dim he would not have chosen a suit in it.
— The older one gets the more one comes to resemble oneself.
— You don’t stop laughing because you grow older. You grow older because you stop laughing.
— Previously, you had to be famous to afford scandals. Now you need a scandal to become famous.
— The French are true romantics. They feel the only difference between a man of forty and one of seventy is thirty years of experience.
— If you wait for the perfect moment when all is safe and assured, it may never arrive. Mountains will not be climbed, races won, or lasting happiness achieved.
— Do not be afraid to be afraid.
— An artist carries on throughout his life a mysterious, uninterrupted conversation with his public.