Juliette Gréco’s recent death in her 90s brought back some melodramatic memories. Back in 1957 Gréco was one of France’s premier chanteuses of torch songs, a very sexy young woman all dressed in black with auburn hair and very white skin, who sang of doomed love and romantic longing. Darryl F. Zanuck, the legendary ex-head of 20th Century Fox, had fallen rather hard when he saw her perform in a Parisian Left Bank bistro and decided to make her a film star. While casting The Roots of Heaven, the movie that would be her introduction, Zanuck and La Gréco had moved to the French Riviera, where Zanuck gambled very large sums at the chemmy table every night at the Cannes summer casino. Juliette sat next to him and played every hand he did but in much smaller sums.
Rather far away from the French Riviera, a 20-year-old me was a struggling tennis player on the circuit, and in August of 1957, after a heartbreaking loss in Deauville, I had had enough. I decided to go to the Riviera where my best friend Yanni Zographos held court at the Hotel du Cap every summer. Yanni was the nephew and inheritor of the man who did break the bank in Monte Carlo, having figured out the odds in the game of baccarat. Nico Zographos took over the bank in various casinos during the ’20s and left a large fortune to his nephews and nieces, never having married.
Yanni reserved a room for me at the Carlton in Cannes, room 303, without a sea view and looking into the large courtyard. It was to be for two days and then I would move to more salubrious surroundings at the Hotel du Cap. I arrived at the fabled land of Fitzgerald having first visited there five years before with my parents, but this time I was determined to make it count. The trouble was, I had a high fever as a result of a bad cold. As Yanni and I arrived at the casino on my first night on the town, the temperature and the nonstop drinks were a bad mix as I watched Juliette and Darryl gambling. Perhaps it was the combination of both that made me imagine that she had looked at me and smiled, and I informed Yanni of the fact. Later on, feeling very out of sorts, I was dropped off at my hotel and fell asleep as soon as I hit the pillow. Then suddenly I was awake as my door opened and a woman came in. “It’s me, Juliette, do not turn on the light,” she whispered.
She quickly undressed and slithered naked under the sheets. Everything I’d ever read or imagined about the South of France went racing through my befogged mind, and suddenly it had all come true. What I didn’t expect were the howls and screams that Juliette let out as we began the lovemaking. Shutters banged open and lights were turned on as her screams echoed inside the courtyard. Things quieted down rather soon after that—I was, after all, not yet 21—and she dressed quickly, kissed me goodnight, and left in the dark. “What a way to start my stay on the French Riviera,” was my only thought as I went to sleep.
Discretion is not the strongest asset of youth, and in the morning I told Zographos, who had a sly smile on his face when he asked me how my evening had gone. He congratulated me, as did the fabled concierge of the Carlton, Julien, who controlled everything and was the most important person to know on the Riviera.
That evening, feeling better but still with a fever, I returned to the casino with Yanni after a sumptuous dinner and lots of champagne on the terrace of the Carlton. Darryl and Juliette were at their usual table punting away. I caught her eye and gave her a big smile, but she did not respond. I figured it was the cynical sexual reality of the Riviera, a baptism of fire, so to speak. Unbelievably, around 4.30 a.m. my door opened yet again and Juliette Gréco silently came in, undressed, and got into bed with me. This time her love shrieks had a neighbor announce, “Ça recommence.” She followed the same procedure and left after a brief wordless kiss in the dark.
The next morning, packed for the move to Antibes, I told Yanni over the telephone that as Zanuck had a cabana next to his I would bring things to a head where Juliette was concerned. “I’ve had it with this bullshit, if I’m good enough to sleep with…” Yanni didn’t say a word. While paying my small bill, Julien took me aside. Looking like a wise uncle, he informed me not to make a fuss because Zanuck was a very jealous man. “And, after all, it wasn’t Mademoiselle Juliette Gréco who visited you these last two nights but a popular streetwalker known as the screamer. It was Monsieur Zographos’ idea, I just chose the lady of the night. She looks like Gréco, n’est-ce pas?”
As far as jokes go, this one was brilliant. I fell for it and then some. The irony of my initiation to the razzle-dazzle of the Riviera set was that every time I saw Juliette on screen after that I felt cheated somehow. And often wondered whether I would have told her what really transpired if I ever actually met her.
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