Other Worlds, Dame Nellie Melba and Oscar Wilde, Savoy Hotel
Two of the greatest performers of their time had an unlikely friendship, and crossed paths in London and Paris at key points in their lives.
Sagan talks of her response to the trappings and expectations of fame:
I have worn my legend like a veil. This delightful mask, somewhat over-simplified, correspond[s] to certain of my obvious tastes: speed, the sea, midnight, everything explosive, everything dark, everything ephemeral…
Françoise Sagan caused a sensation in 1954 with her debut novel Bonjour Tristesse. She wrote it over the course of her summer holiday from her studies at the Sorbonne when she was just eighteen years of age, and she took the name of a princess in Proust’s In Search of Lost Time as her nom de plume. Overnight, the media turned her into a star, an It Girl of literature. She was labelled one of France’s greatest exports, along with Edith Piaf and Chanel No. 5. With the fame came a wild, extravagant, drug and alcohol fuelled way of life.
I’ve led an agitated existence, a life of peripeteia, God only knows why! I’m impulsive. I like clamour and craziness. I often can’t control myself.
Aside from Paris, two places were of central significance to Sagan: Cajarc, her birthplace in the Lot, and the little town of Saint-Tropez in the South of France.
Françoise Quoirez was born on 21 June 1935 to a bourgeois family at 45 Boulevard du Tour-de-Ville in Cajarc. The house belonged to her imperious grandmother Mme Laubard, who had summoned her daughter back from Paris to give birth to Françoise in the bed where her grandmother, mother, brother and sister had all been born.
Her mother’s family owned mills and farms in the area and her father came from a family of wealthy industrialists, so there was no lack of money for this family of five.
As the baby of the family Françoise was pampered and indulged. She was largely raised by a young local woman, Julia Lafon, who was present at her birth. She read stories to Françoise in the evenings. A favourite was Monsieur Seguin’s Goat, the story of a nanny goat so courageous that she chose death in exchange for one day of freedom. That day spent, she waited for daybreak before she died:
And she lay down on the ground with her beautiful white coat all stained with blood. Then the wolf leapt on the little goat and devoured her.
Françoise did not cry at the ending. Always the rebel, with an overwhelming desire for freedom, she understood the nanny goat all too well.
The family lived in Paris but the children spent one month a year with their grandmother. Here Françoise was introduced to literature, which became one of her great passions. She spent hours reading in the attic and one summer read Proust, beginning with Albertine disparue (Albertine Gone), the sixth volume of his seven-part novel In Search of Lost Time. From that ‘I discovered that the human being was my only quarry, the only one that interested me, the only one I would never catch, but that I would believe I had touched, perhaps, once in a while…’
As a shy tomboy she played in abandoned houses with local children, or tramped through fields with her imaginary friends. This region is brooding and gaunt, a place of abandoned hamlets on rocky hillsides, snaking rivers, big night skies. It leaves an impression of emptiness. She later wrote of it in her novel Et Toute Ma Sympathie (1993):
…torrid heat, a desert, kilometres and kilometres of hills, out of which rise only the ruined villages emptied by drought…A shepherd who spends long, solitary days with his flock, and whose face has grown grey, the colour of the stone itself, because of the endless solitude.
Sagan continued to visit the family home most summers and according to her biographer Anne Berest, it was the only place where she found peace in her later years. Cajarc remained for her an unspoiled sanctuary, a reminder of her roots in an otherwise restless, largely chaotic life.
Françoise liked to shock: ‘I’ve always loved to go just that little bit further,’ she said. At one school, after a particularly boring French lesson, she strung up a bust of Molière in a doorway. She then failed to show her mother the note saying she had been expelled, so at the age of twelve or thirteen she spent the entire spring wandering around Paris on her own. Every morning she would slip out at eight with her satchel and take the bus to the Place de la Concorde where she browsed the bookstalls along the Seine and talked to people on the barges. She read widely, Cocteau, Sartre, Camus, ‘anything I could lay my hands on’ and always while sitting on a particular bench near the Seine. Other days she walked all over Paris for miles.
In her next (Catholic) school Françoise was expelled for her lack of interest in ‘things spiritual’. On her way to school for the early morning Mass on Fridays, she would see party goers streaming home from the clubs.
They were all in evening dress and waving bottles of champagne, just like the characters in Scott Fitzgerald. They were screaming with laughter and talking about what they were going to do that day…horse races…that sort of thing. I thought “Well, they’re having a better time of it than I am.”
Already an atheist, she recited in class a Jacques Prévert poem ‘Life is a little bird’: ‘Our father who art in Heaven, why don’t you stay there?’ She said the last bit with relish. It was not well received.
Françoise was a bright student, much admired for her flair for literature. At the Cours Hattemer, while preparing for her baccalauréat examinations, she befriended Florence, daughter of the celebrated novelist and statesman André Malraux. The two would spend their evenings in the cellar clubs in Saint Germain, and their afternoons in Parisian cafés discussing contemporary writing.
Paris was on the cusp of a second flourishing similar to the one that had occurred after the First World War. As with members of the Lost Generation of the 1920s, those with the most original voices were drawn to Paris after the horrors of war. They were eager to inject new life into the worlds of art, philosophy, politics and literature. Heated discussions took place in the cafés where new ideas and manifestos were tossed about.
Françoise had already produced plays, short stories and poems, all of which she later described as unreadable, but Colette Audry, a collaborator on Sartre’s influential periodical Les Temps modernes (Modern Times), advised her on how to go about publishing her writing.
In the summer of 1953, having failed her first-year exams at the Sorbonne, Françoise was studying to sit for them again in October. Yet she said she had some time on her hands and a strong desire to write, so in six weeks she dashed off a novel. In an interview with The Paris Review she said she had thought it was something few girls of her age would dare to attempt. And more than anything, she wished to test her willpower.
I wanted passionately to finish it—I’ve never wanted anything so much. While I was writing I thought there might be a chance of its being published. Finally, when it was done, I thought it was hopeless.
Nonetheless she sent it off to the publishers Julliard and Gallimard and was astonished to discover they were interested. Julliard said he hoped it wasn’t autobiographical, as writers tended not to follow up with a second novel if the first was based on their own life; she assured him that nothing so sinister had happened to her.
Cécile is a motherless seventeen-year-old who idolises her father, Raymond. He is frivolous, easily bored, permissive and attractive to women. Father and daughter have settled into an easy, fun filled life together since she left convent school. They have rented a villa on the Côte d’Azur for the summer and Raymond brings along his beautiful but shallow girlfriend Elsa. They lie on the beach under the dazzling sun. The fair-skinned Elsa burns to a crisp and suffers; Raymond exercises his belly flab. Cécile, who has recently failed her exams at the Sorbonne, feels drowsily content to remain idle. When Cyril, a handsome university student capsizes his boat in front of them, he offers to teach Cécile to sail and they fall into a summer romance. They drift along, all whims indulged, their days effortless, unstructured, unexamined – until, that is, the advent of the beautiful, sophisticated Anne Larsen. She is a friend of Cécile’s dead mother and her arrival upsets the balance and sets Cécile on edge.
Anne gave shape to things and a meaning to words that my father and I prefer to ignore. She set a standard of good taste and fastidiousness which one could not help noticing in her sudden withdrawals, her expressions, and her pained silences.
Anne brings with her a moral order. She is in love with Raymond, and usurps Elsa in Raymond’s affections. With the announcement of the impending marriage to her father, Anne enjoys a new, powerful position. She begins to dominate and impose her will on Cécile, ordering her to eat more, study in her room, give up Cyril. She stirs up in Cécile feelings of attraction and repulsion, love and hatred. Is this the mothering she has been missing all these years, or is it control? Is Anne decent or is she jealous? The shifting nuances of their relationship are observed with great psychological acuity. After an internal struggle, Cécile wrests back control, aiming to reclaim her father and banish Anne. The second part of the book focuses on Cécile’s revenge. She constructs a masterful plot in which Anne, Raymond, Cyril and Elsa are exquisitely manipulated, with unforeseen and devastating consequences.
Sagan said the themes of the book came from her daydreams, imagination and nostalgia. Its success had surprised her as much as everyone else. She had borrowed the book’s title from a poem ‘Bonjour Tristesse’ by Paul Éluard:
You are inscribed in the lines of the ceiling.
You are inscribed in the eyes that I love.
You are not quite misery,
For the poorest lips denounce you
With a smile.
Soon after its publication in May 1954, Bonjour Tristesse was awarded the coveted Prix des Critiques. The media were delighted by the debut of this winsome young writer and splashed her all over the front pages of the papers. Paris Match declared she was an eighteen-year-old Colette and a review by the eminent French novelist and critic François Mauriac made the front page of Le Figaro:
Talent bursts on the first page. This book has all the ease, all the audacity of youth without having the slightest vulgarity. Obviously, Miss Sagan is in no way responsible for the uproar she sets off…We can say that a new author was born to us.
Although praising her talent, Mauriac deplored her amorality and famously called her a charming monster. What shocked him, and those keepers of the moral order in France, was the sexual freedom of her heroine. Looking back at the controversy many years later, Sagan said, ‘It was inconceivable, that a young girl of 17 or 18 should make love with a boy of her own age, and not be punished for it.’
The right of women to freely enjoy their sexuality was still largely denied by French society. Simon de Beauvoir’s seminal feminist work The Second Sex had been published five years before and Françoise had read it with interest. But such ideas were only just beginning to percolate and had yet to translate into significant change. The publication of Bonjour Tristesse did much to herald a new sexually permissive era. Sagan’s contemporaries, sick of the deprivations of post-war France, were longing to throw off the shackles of sexual oppression. She was a breath of fresh air and became a symbol for a generation casting about for a new way to live. Within a year, Bonjour Tristesse sold one million copies in France alone.
Twenty years later John Updike praised
its sparkling sea and secluding woods, its animal quickness, its academically efficient plot, its heroes given the perfection of Racine personae by the author’s innocent belief in glamor.
Gamine, elfin, her eyes peeping out from behind her fringe, Françoise Sagan became the epitome of Parisian chic. At the age of twenty her success had gained her entry to the intellectual scene of St-Germaine-des-Prés. She lounged in cafes and nightclubs with people such as Jean Paul Sartre, Ernest Hemingway, Francois Mitterand, Boris Vian and Henry Miller. Vanessa Redgrave took up smoking after hearing how she drank coffee and smoked Gauloises for breakfast: ‘Immediately I decided it was sophistication itself.’
Until Sagan turned twenty-one her father was required by law to look after her affairs. He was an astute businessman and his daughter soon had a small fortune. As Françoise told it, when she asked him what she should do with all this money he said that having so much when young was really quite dangerous and she should get rid of it quickly. She took him at his word. At twenty she owned a small apartment on the rue de Grenelle and moved in with her brother, buying fast cars and boats and supporting crowds of hangers on.
It was wonderful. None of it was real. I had a cheque book and the money disappeared. Nothing could have been easier…I would get letters from people I didn’t even know saying, “I need some money to buy a washing machine” and I would send them the money.
Françoise began indulging in the trappings of film stars. In one of ten essays comprising her 1983 memoirs, With Fondest Regards, she equated speeding in a sleek sports car with life:
The person who hasn’t felt his body become alert, his right hand moving to caress the gears, his left grasping the steering wheel and his legs stretched out, seemingly relaxed but ready for any violent action for shifting or braking; the person who has not felt, all while executing these attempts at survival, the prestigious and fascinating silence of an imminent death – that mixture of refusal and of provocation death offers us – has never loved speed nor has he ever loved life…
Racing through life and risking all, she was described by one of her friends as ‘a feminine dandy, a chic and irreplaceable public figure, a neo-romantic gaily and elegantly transforming her despair into art.’
At first, she found fame difficult. ‘Success was like a huge, multicoloured snowball. All I could do was stand there and let it go by.’ She became a commodity, a myth and felt ashamed of herself, trapped in this role, required to answer frivolous questions while being forced to skip the real issues. Critic Bertrand Poirot-Delpech delighted in comparing her to ‘a bird fallen from the nest on which modern cannibalism cut its teeth and won’t give up.’
Her success provoked a certain spite and venom which began to creep into her reviews. She ignored them and continued to write about love, with allusions to its darker depths. Her friend Bernard Frank described her in these early days as:
this skinny little person, lovable, shrewd, talented…she seemed to burn money without touching it and that enraged certain “serious people”. Hence the fascination she exerts, and the sort of horror she provokes. As she cannot write a word without people insulting her or fawning upon her, she has taken a liking to their absence of judgement that flatters her indolence.
To some extent she encouraged the attention, giving countless interviews in which she would discuss juicy adventures and hint at parallels between herself and her heroines. But she remembered something the writer and musician Boris Vian had said: ‘We’re always in disguise, so we may as well disguise ourselves properly. That way we won’t have to be in disguise any more.’ And Françoise adopted her own legend as her mask. She was plunging herself into those things that were ‘dark’ in order to discover herself, she said. On the one hand her real preferences were ‘speed, the sea, midnight, things that glitter, things that are dark, things that destroy.’ Yet they were also a pretence, ‘just one more way of avoiding loneliness. It was a mask and at the same time it was me in a way.’
Despite her legendary partying, Françoise Sagan wrote more than thirty novels, nine plays, many short stories, a number of screenplays and a biography of her idol Sarah Bernhardt. Between 1954 and 1965 she had three further best-sellers: A Certain Smile, Aimez Vous Brahms? and La Chamade. They all became successful films but none received the acclaim of Bonjour Tristesse.
She would begin her books with a rough draft but liked to improvise, changing the story and pulling its strings at will. Finally the writing was reworked as she balanced sentences, checking for rhythm while reading aloud. There could not be a syllable or a beat missing. The title, she believed, was like a dress, to be chosen with care. Describing her pleasure in finding a noun and an adjective that went together perfectly, she said, ‘It’s like walking through a beautiful landscape you don’t know.’
Occasionally she could dash off ten pages in an hour or two but writing was usually an effort and made her feel humble. ‘I’ve read Proust and Stendhal’, she said. ‘That keeps you in your place.’
Sagan was not one for detail and did not consider herself particularly observant but she created ambience effortlessly. Her scenes came to her as images and she strove to enthral the reader using everyday words in ways that were captivating. ‘That is the strength of the author, and the source of his pleasure.’
She observed that, while certain women were blunt and outspoken with definite ideas about themselves, she was drawn to portray those who discover themselves through another person. In a way, she was like this herself. ‘I discover what I can and cannot do by struggling with a blank sheet of paper. When I’m not writing, I always see myself in terms of someone else.’
A writer, she believed, must be a dreamer and a liar. And literature for Sagan was a type of madness where characters were invented who became the writer’s friends, and one ended up knowing them better than one’s parents.
Bonjour Tristesse drips with the sun of Provence. It is set in the Var near Saint-Tropez, which held a special place in Françoise Sagan’s heart as it represented the hedonism of her youth. Here she had hung out with a group of carefree Parisians known as ‘Sagan’s gang’ over a dozen summers. They lounged on beaches and haunted the night clubs, helping to create the cult of Saint-Tropez – much to her eventual dismay.
Years later, in With Fondest Regards, she unfolded tragicomic reminiscences of the once peaceful little town:
It is mid June . I am sitting on the terrace of the Hotel de la Ponche, in Saint-Tropez, at six-o’clock in the evening.
She recalls a day back in 1954 or 1955 when she and her brother had arrived at the port on a blue spring morning, in their Jaguar X440. Dusty from the long journey from Paris, they headed for the one real estate agent and rented a large villa nearest the port. They celebrated their arrival in the port’s only bar, a dark, provincial café called L’Escale. It was run by an old woman called Mado and smelt of ‘wood, insecticide and lemonade’. That afternoon they swapped their Parisian clothes for rope sandals (espadrilles) and unbleached cotton at Vachon, a shop run by one of the main families in the town.
Soon their Parisian friends were piling out of their cars and taking seats alongside Françoise and her brother at the bar in La Ponche. From here they could observe to their left a cluster of local women knitting and chatting in ‘sublime accents’ and to their right, Sainte-Maxine’s white splash of houses on its blue-green stretch of coast across the water. In the bay fishing boats were setting out for their catch: ‘the gilt-head bream of the blue deep, those fish of gold, those fish that sing’, that Rimbaud had celebrated.
This would be the one year that seemed normal to Françoise and her friends; the year
we were the only ones to use and abuse the sea, the sand, the solitude and beauty, the only ones to use and abuse the kindness and stunned patience of its inhabitants; the only ones to hoot our horns at dawn in the narrow streets; to behave like cheeky hooligans with two policemen, making them laugh, and when they called us fada (the local Provençal word for “cracked in the head,”) it didn’t yet seem a cheap and nasty aping of Marcel Pagnol…
In 1956 Roger Vadim arrived to shoot the film And God Created Woman starring Brigitte Bardot, who plays a fierce siren in a small town. The role turned Bardot into an international sensation and soon after the film’s release, Sagan wrote that ‘French humanoids’ began beating a path to Saint-Tropez in search of ‘Fun’.
Sagan and her gang now had to contend with the hordes of interlopers. They were obliged to pay more for their crayfish and queue outside Vachon or slink off to the rival stores that had popped up nearby. She describes how, instead of laughter, pleasure or curiosity ruling the night, there was false gaiety. The ‘frenzied debauchery’ in which Sagan and her friends had indulged with ‘grace’ and ‘ingenuity’ was now pursued by ‘ostentatious and remorseless’ people dripping with money. In just two years, they were everywhere,
stripping down to the waist and running with the wind in the sails of a racing boat or behind the wheel of a roaring Ferrari, acting depraved, sporty, arty…
And yet, Sagan goes on to argue, there is plenty that endures: the beauty of Saint-Tropez is indestructible, a place where there is a ‘communion between the human soul and the landscape with a quality of life and light you find hardly anywhere else.’ There are the warm sands, lengthening shadows, ‘the smell of pine, salt and idodine’. And its houses ‘bask in the sunshine during the day, like cats or overfed dogs’.
The essay ends as Sagan notices some people in the Hotel de la Ponche who are laughing,
ready to set off elsewhere, no matter where exactly, but somewhere that resembles this place, or that would strive to resemble it and never quite succeed.
Travelling from drizzly Paris to Saint-Tropez in the spring of 1957 Françoise misjudged a bend in her Aston Martin and rolled it four times. Her friends were flung clear but she was trapped under the car, breaking many bones and fracturing her skull. A priest administered the last rights but she did not die, much to the chagrin of the press. Bonjour Tristesse had ended with a fatal car accident and as Rachel Cusk points out, ‘The disappointment among the obituary writers that the author did not submit then and there to her fictional destiny is palpable.’
On regaining consciousness, one of the first things she did was quote from the 18th century writer Nicolas Chamfort: ‘God spare me physical pain, I’ll look after the moral pain.’ It became her motto in the year that followed, when her suffering was so unbearable that she at times considered taking her own life. Recovery came at the cost of addiction to the morphine-based painkiller that had helped her to walk again. In Toxique (1964) she wrote about having to go into detox: ‘It was a long, slow fight and it was quite sickening.’
As soon as she’d recovered Françoise was back behind the wheel of a sports car:
I’d still prefer a life that has its ups and downs. A contented, uneventful life is no life at all, as far as I’m concerned.
Plenty of ups and downs were to follow. There were a couple more serious car crashes and Sagan’s giant thirst for whisky, drugs, sex and roulette. She made a killing at the gaming tables of Deauville and bought a turn-of-the century chateau in Normandy with the proceeds. She supported a number of friends who had fallen by the wayside, saying that she liked their ‘compunction to hurl themselves, like fireflies, or night moths, against the four corners of the giant lampshade of life.’
Because her books were about the idle rich, one critic described her as ‘a luxury hotel existentialist’. She responded that the rich were all she knew. ‘Think about it. Whisky, Ferraris and gambling; aren’t they more amusing than ‘knitting, housekeeping and one’s savings’. And she added that she would have been the last person to have written convincingly about that.
All my life, I will continue obstinately to write about love, solitude and passion among the kind of people I know. The rest don’t interest me.
Today, Bonjour Tristesse is regarded as a modern classic. English journalist Anne Corbett says that contemporary critics ‘see a quality and a unity of her work which could touch the heights of tragedy, and is never without irony.’
Françoise had two brief marriages in quick succession and one child, Denis Westhoff. She found some lasting happiness with the love of her life, the former model, stylist and fashion editor Peggy Roche. Together they raised Denis. He later said of this relationship:
Between these two women, it was a mixture of passion, tenderness, mutual admiration, mutual recognition, friendship and complicity like my mother never knew, in my memory, neither before, nor after her.
After Peggy’s death in 1991, Sagan’s life took a downward turn. She became caught up in an investigation for tax fraud and a political-financial scandal linked to her friend, former French president Francois Mitterand. As a result, her grand house in Normandy and most of her possessions were seized.
Sagan’s final years were spent out of the public glare, in ill health and poverty, assisted by the charity of friends. She died at the age of sixty-nine and chose to be buried in her family plot in Cajarc, where she lies next to Peggy and her second husband Robert Westhoff.
On her death, French President Jacques Chirac paid her an eloquent tribute, calling her ‘a leading figure in her generation’ who helped raise the status of women in France.
With her passing, France loses one of its most brilliant and sensitive authors…With finesse, emotion and subtlety, Françoise Sagan explored the spirit and passions of the human heart.
Vous mon coeur par, sung by Juliette Gréco
It is not widely known that Françoise Sagan dabbled in song writing, composing lyrics for romantic songs and even librettos for ballets. This aspect of her career came about when, at the age of twenty, haunting the bars and nightclubs of Saint Germain des Prés, she met the musician Michel Magne. Having already tried out over fifty lyricists for his songs, Magne thought Sagan’s style would be perfect.
Her lyrics reflect a maturity beyond her years and lack the cynicism of her books. They are often about people wrestling with private pain and angst, deep into alcohol-fuelled nights. Vous mon Couer (You my Heart) is a plea to a lover not leave: ‘You, my heart/You my life/You who smile/You who embrace me/You, one day…..will leave me, my heart.’
A friend arranged a meeting between Sagan and the hugely popular singer Juliette Gréco, the muse of Saint-Germain-des-Prés. She was already singing lyrics by Prévert, Sartre and Queneau. They met at the Brasserie Lipp, where Sagan handed over her songs in the hope that she would be willing to record one or two. Gréco later remembered that although she had read and admired Sagan’s book, she had anticipated that, given their ten-year age difference, she would be spending the evening with a precocious brat. But she found Sagan ‘really wicked, in the nicest way’. She ‘had this mixture of innate gravity and sour humour…we immediately found a common language.’ They began an affair which evolved into a lifelong friendship.
Gréco, whom Sartre described as having a thousand poems in her voice, liked her songs and chose four, including Vous mon Coeur, and they appeared on her EP: Juliette Gréco chante Francoise Sagan. The EP was Sagan and Magne’s greatest success.
Thirty years before Françoise Sagan and her friends made Saint-Tropez famous, there was Colette. One of France’s best known writers, she had discovered ‘the town one never wants to leave’ in the spring of 1925. She was fifty-two and newly in love with her third husband-to-be, Maurice Goudeket, a thirty-five year-old jeweller. She wrote to a friend:
Ah, la la! And again, la la! And never enough la la’s! A nice piece of work your girlfriend is, I must say. A nice kettle of fish she’s in now too, and loving it, up to the eyes, up to the lips, and up to even further than that! Oh, these quiet ones have the very devil in them…
Colette had never liked what she had once called ‘the pretty, false Midi’ but that year she had a radical change of heart. Although nearby Sainte-Maxine had been colonised by Parisians from the theatre world, Saint-Tropez was still a sleepy port with little traffic. For nightlife there were just a few piano bars, full of local fisherman and the occasional artist. She thought it was perfect. That same year she bought a Provençal farmhouse at nearby, La Treille Muscate, on the Route des Salins.
To find it, I had to tear myself away from the little Mediterranean port, from the tunny boats, from the flat-roofed houses with their washes of faded candy pink and lavender blue and pale green, away from the streets filled with their hovering scents of sea urchins, of nougat, of disembowelled melons.
Almost hidden behind wild oleanders was an ordinary iron gate that opened onto four acres of orange and fig trees, a vineyard, a pine grove that scented the air with resin, a garden full of pimentos, garlic and aubergines, and a modest low-ceilinged house, its open terrace covered with wisteria. ‘I shall make my nest in it like a dog in new straw, by turning round and round until I’m settled.’
Behind the house a gate led straight to the sea. Colette would swim at sunrise, or walk in the silent woods, returning with her espadrilles soaked in dew to breakfast on a feast of figs: ‘green ones with yellow flesh, white ones with red flesh, black ones with red flesh, violet ones with pink flesh’. She worked in her garden, planting tomatoes, berries, herbs, bougainvillea – ‘sheets of purple fire’. In the afternoons she would write.
Colette was a fascinating woman with an aura of magic. In no time her presence was widely publicised and the stationer at Saint-Tropez began to sell postcards of her villa. One morning she found a horde of curious tourists waiting for her. ‘I didn’t hide what I thought of them,’ she said.
Soon new developments began to crowd the coastline and Colette began to document the type of changes that Sagan, too, would witness some thirty years later.
Colette took umbrage at the way Saint-Tropez now swarmed with ‘the sort of people photographed by Vogue’ (while failing to acknowledge that she too had been photographed by Vogue). In front of the little shop where she bought her toilet paper she was horrified by the Bugattis parked three deep, and teeming through the town’s narrow lanes, ‘tout Paris et tout Montparnasse’. The bistros became nightclubs for movie stars, moguls and titled ladies. Anchored in the harbour were sloops and schooners belonging to the likes of Errol Flynn, Marlene Dietrich and Edward, Prince of Wales. ‘No enticement or constraint could make me dine in the port this season’, she huffed to a friend. But her little nest with its deserted beach continued to provide her with a safe haven.
In her mid-fifties, Colette wrote Break of Day, a fictionalised memoir about a woman whose return to independence is enlivened by simple pleasures and the beauty of her surroundings in her Provençal house by the sea:
Tomorrow I shall surprise the red dawn on the tamarisks wet with salty dew, and on the mock bamboos where a pearl hangs at the tip of each blue lance. The coast road that leads up from the night, the mist and the sea; then a bath, work and rest. How simple everything could be!
Finally, sick of the intrusions – even her daily swims began to attract spectators – she sold her nest in 1939.
Cajarc (the last ‘c’ is not pronounced) lies on a limestone plateau in the Lot, halfway between Cahors and Figeac. The small town is bustling with cafes and more than a few places selling wines of the region. In its heyday it thrived with tanneries and mills. It has a beautifully intact medieval section built around the church, ending in a small arcaded square. The region is known for its saffron, a crop which was introduced by the Phoenicians. Sagan’s family house is a grander residence than most, in one of the more prosperous streets just behind the medieval quarter.
Sagan often returned to Cajarc with her close friend Francoise Mitterand. She also introduced former French President Georges Pompidou to this part of the world and he and his wife liked it so much they bought a property in the area. Pompidou sat on the town council for a while and gifted Cajarc with an excellent art gallery, now the Centre d’Art Contemporain Georges Pompidou. http://www.magcp.fr/
It was the painters who came here first. Matisse, Bonnard, and Signac were all attracted by the rugged coast of Saint-Tropez, its long twilights and lush countryside. ‘I have enough here’, wrote Signac, ‘to work on for the rest of my existence. I have discovered happiness.’
As often happens, the artists were followed by writers. Guy de Maupassant sailed here on his yacht Bel-Ami in 1887. In Sur l’Eau, which he published the following year, he wrote that it was,
a charming and simple daughter of the sea, a lovely, modest little town, grown from the water like a shellfish, fed on fish and sea air…
Although it is clearly still a magnet for film stars and beautiful people, its port cluttered with rows and rows of ostentatious boats referred to as gin palaces, and its streets lined with sports cars, much of what Sagan and Colette celebrated about Saint-Tropez remains. There is its red hued coastline, ‘marine immensity’ and the faded dusky pink roofs of the buildings that gather snugly around the little bell tower.
We had a leisurely lunch at the warm and welcoming La Ponche which has been owned by the same family for generations. Framed photographs of its former regulars Brigitte Bardot and Françoise Sagan are proudly displayed in the restaurant (where Bardot gets top billing). Sagan is pictured on the patio with its view of the port and the harbour. She kept returning thirty years after she first arrived: ‘The spirit of Albert still presides, as does the ingenious humour of his wife’, she wrote.
Another quintessential Tropézien institution is the café Le Sénéquier. Founded in 1887, it became famous for its soft nougat that Colette adored. She came here to catch up with her friends Jean Cocteau and Joseph Kessel. During the Second World War it was bombed but reopened in 1951, with its trademark canvas chairs and triangular tables. It had a starring role in And God Created Woman and was a favourite of Picasso, Matisse, Anais Nin. Jean Paul Sartre wrote some of his book The Roads to Freedom here. We had coffee on its terrace which has a fine view of the harbour, the banks of gin palaces and the passing parade.
We spotted the blue Maserati (pictured) attracting considerable attention. Its driver sashayed towards the car and slipped coolly into the driver’s seat ready to zoom off, before realising he needed to get out again to close his vertical doors – spoiling the effect completely.
Françoise is buried in the small fenced cemetery of Seuzac, a few kilometres from Cajarc. She rests with her relatives, her brother, her second husband and the great love of her life, Peggy Roche.
Visitors had left various tokens on her grave: a huge lump of molten green glass; a metal sculpture, the flyleaf torn from one of her novels and held down by stones. There were small love hearts, a champagne bottle, some gambling chips and, wedged discreetly between grave and headstone, an intravenous needle.
Her great friend and former lover Juliette Gréco attended the funeral in 2004. She said of Sagan, ’She did what she wanted.’
The trailer for Bonjour Tristesse (1957), directed by Otto Preminger, starring Jean Seberg as Cécile, supported by Deborah Kerr and David Niven.
Footage of a fairly painful interview with Sagan about the film Bonjour Tristesse.
A brief article about Françoise Sagan and her son Denis Westhoff, and their ties to Carjarc in the Lot.
For French speakers, here is a short video featuring Denis Westhoff speaking about his mother’s links to Cajarc here.
A Paris Review interview with Sagan.
Sagan’s Obituary in the Independent.
Juliete Gréco, in her nineties, talked here about her life and career.
Just as I posted this story, the great Gréco died. Here is her obituary.
A recent interview in Vanity Fair with Brigitte Bardot who never left Saint-Tropez. She discusses her life after her early retirement from acting.
The trailer for And God Created Woman (1956) filmed on location in Saint-Tropez
An article about Colette’s novel, Break of Day.
Vachon, the shop where Françoise and her brother bought their cotton summer outfits in the fifties is still going.
So too is Rondini (founded 1927), where Colette bought her handmade Tropéziennes (flat sandals) that became her trademark.
Berest, Anne. Sagan, Paris, 1945, Gallic Books, 2015
Colette. Earthly Paradise, Ed. Robert Phelps. Penguin, 1985
Cusk, Rachel. Coventry: Essays, Faber & Faber, 2019
Jones, Ted. The French Riviera: A Literary Guide for Travellers, Tauris Parke, 2007
Kirkup, James. Obituary, Françoise Sagan, Independent, 27 Septemer, 2004
Miller, Judith Graves. Françoise, Sagan, Twayne Publishers, 1988
Martin, Helen. Lot: Travels Through a Limestone Landscape in Southwest France, Moho Books, 2008
Pound, Catherine. ‘The music of Francoise Sagan’, Medium, July 22, 2015
Sagan, Françoise. Bonjour Tristesse, Penguin, 2011
Sagan, Françoise. Responses: The Autobiography of Francoise Sagan. (D. Macey, Trans). Black Sheep Books, 1974
Sagan, Françoise. With Fondest Regards, Françoise Sagan. (C. Donougher, Trans). E.P. Dutton, 1985
Thurman, Judith. Secrets of the Flesh: A Life of Colette, Bloomsbury, 1999