Did you have to be a thinker, a philosopher, to help epitomize and pioneer an existentialist ethic in 1950s Paris? Or could you live the ethic of absurd aloneness in a mad and bad world but still maintain dignity and humanism in the face of despair? And still create something defiant, though fragile, in a world that seemed sometimes without mercy? More than anyone else, without writing a single book on philosophy, French singer Juliette Greco, who died on September 23 at the age of 93, embodied the condition of mercy in a world still reeling from having (just) defeated fascism.
Her friend, Simone de Beauvoir, wrote of the need to create at least “interim mercies,” but it is a life’s work to create many of them. It is almost fitting that Greco’s greatest film role was in John Huston’s “The Roots of Heaven,” an adaptation of Romain Gary’s magnificent novel, “Les Racines de Ciel.” From the pen of one of France’s most dashing war heroes, an ace fighter pilot, no one could say the book was merely sentimental. But its epigram — that once the roots of heaven embed themselves in your heart you will never be able to extract them — meant that a chosen life is a choice, indeed, for life.
The Parisian Becoming of Simone de Beauvoir
In the case of Greco, that life was chosen without any other choice by surviving Nazi concentration camps as a suspected teenage Resistance fighter. She emerged starving and destitute, relying on charity to survive, and her preference for the color black as was one thrust upon her by donors of usually oversized men’s clothing. This morphed into the black and often tight outfits of the Left Bank night club singer who fell into the circle of philosophers and artists.
Men fell in love with her. Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus wrote lyrics for her, visiting American actors like Marlon Brando courted her. The list of her suitors, and lovers, is endless. But this was the 1950s in Paris, which prefigured the 1960s in the rest of the Western world. Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre had themselves strings of lovers, sometimes shared. And this was part of Beauvoir’s becoming a new and free woman. There was nothing prudish about the context of “The Second Sex.”
This Paris was also multi-racial. And this is where the most famous and most tragic of Greco’s love affairs broke ground, not so much in France but as a symbol to the United States as to what was possible. Miles Davis, escaping the US and its racism, fell madly in love with Greco in Paris, where he was welcomed like Paul Robeson was welcomed in London and where jazz was very much the accompaniment to existentialist philosophy. It represented a freedom that nevertheless required technical virtuosity. This is what many overlook in their views of French thought. Rigor was always there in palaces of absurdity. Being a human was an absurd condition, but it was a condition that mandated responsibilities: The world could not be abandoned.
So deep was the relationship between Davis and Greco that Sartre asked Davis, “Why don’t you just marry her?” To which Miles Davis replied that, if he did, she would just be regarded as a “Negro’s whore” in America; this would break her heart, and he loved her too much to hurt her. When, eventually, they did meet in New York, they were treated so badly that all of Davis’ misgivings have come home to roost.
The end of the relationship did not mean Greco abandoned her openness — nor her bravery. Many thought she was selling out when she accepted an invitation to sing at a concert in Chile for the dictator Augusto Pinochet. But when she mounted the stage, every song she sang was one that Pinochet had banned, including by Victor Jara, the singer tortured and executed in public by the regime. Greco left the staged with her audience, including Pinochet, in stunned silence, but she was triumphant.
Greco had a tender but annoying voice. One loved her or loathed her. But when she sang the songs of Jacques Brel, it was a giving of female voice to the sometimes desperate heroics and defiance of Brel. Women, too, could embed themselves — and not as hapless creatures — in the human condition.
Perhaps only France could present such a creature to the world. Without writing a word of philosophy, Juliette Greco embodied and personified what it was to live philosophically and with actuality. What is absurd is a far cry from what is preposterous. The absurd calls for human dignity and humanity as the foundations of freedom snatched from the jaws of fascism.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.