Obituary: Loleh Bellon

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The Independent Culture
LOLEH BELLON was one of France's best-loved actresses and playwrights. She emerged after the Second World War, and for the next four decades was one of the brightest stage stars of her generation. Her portrayals of such romantic heroines as Marguerite Gautier in Dumas's La Dame aux camelias, Schiller's Mary Stuart, Lorca's Yerma, to name but a few, were unforgettable and heart-rending.

Bellon grew up in Paris in an artistic milieu. Her mother was a photographer, and a friend of Andre Breton and his Surrealist coterie. As a young girl she was determined to become an actress despite parental disapproval. She chose her childhood nickname, Loleh, which suited her delicate beauty and sunny temperament. She studied with the famous actors/producers/teachers Charles Dullin and Tania Balachova, who saw her potential and soon cast her in their productions.

Her first success was in the Surrealist poet Robert Desnos's Place de l'Etoile, for which she won the Best Young Actress Prize in 1949. Offers of plays and films poured in, but she had already decided to go for quality, working only with the best authors and directors. Thus she appeared in Jean-Louis Barrault's production of Giraudoux's Judith, whose first staging in 1931 had been a total flop. Both the play and Bellon were a triumph: "She is transcendental, your little Bellon," Andre Malraux whispered to Barrault.

Thereafter "Little Bellon" appeared in large and small theatres, in plays by famous and unknown writers, with the versatility of an illusionist. One day she would be playing a prostitute in Peter Brook's production of Jean Genet's Le Balcon, the next she would reduce the whole audience to tears with her consumptive wife of Chekhov's Ivanov in the play of the same name. She was particularly sublime in the Russian classics - Dostoevsky, Turgenev, Chekhov - as well as in Racine and Claudel, whose strong heroines were brought to life by Loleh's dramatic intensity and emotional authority. Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, Goethe's Faust, Pirandello's Tonight We Improvise, were other landmarks in her career.

In the 1970s Bellon began to write plays: "My grammar was far from perfect and my spelling was dodgy, but I had an idea," she said. She wrote her first play, Les Dames de Jeudi (Thursday's Ladies), during the filming of her sister Yannick Bellon's beautiful film Quelquepart, Quelqu'un ("Somewhere, Somebody", 1972) in which she played the lead.

Starring the celebrated Suzanne Flon, Les Dames de Jeudi was a resounding success and ran for two years in Paris (1976-78) before going on tour, and being successfully staged in Germany, Italy, Spain and other European countries. It was based on the experiences of Bellon's Jewish mother and her relatives during the Occupation, and with its mixture of wistful humour and pathos, technical ingenuity and psychological subtlety, won her comparisons with Chekhov. Other plays followed, such as Changement a vue (1979) and Le Coeur sur la main (1981), most of them written for and starring Suzanne Flon and running for several years each.

In the late Forties Bellon married the Spanish author and politician Jorge Semprun, and they had a son. But they soon parted, and in 1959 she married the writer Claude Roy, who died in December 1997, and their union was as happy as it was fruitful for both of them.

As a young actress after the war Bellon became involved in left-wing politics and joined the Communist Party. It damaged her film career, as she was cast by Communist directors in ideological films, playing miners' wives and party activists, which did not serve either her gentle beauty or her subtle talent.

She began to waver in her belief in the Soviet Union when Stalin started the persecution of the Jews with the famous Doctors' Plot (in which he trumped up paranoid charges against Jewish doctors close to the Politburo), and finally left the party after the Hungarian Revolution in 1956. As it happened Claude Roy's political life had followed the same trajectory. Yet she remained faithful to the ideals of her youth, always on the side of the oppressed and the dispossessed, and passionate in her concern for the Third World.

Loleh Bellon was a staunch Anglophile, and dreamed of acting in English, as Sarah Bernhardt and Simone Signoret had done - the latter disastrously in Macbeth, which dissuaded Bellon from pursuing the idea further. She had seen Laurence Olivier and Joan Greenwood in Richard III after the war, when they toured Europe with the Old Vic Company, and it had been a coup de foudre: "Olivier at the end of the play, writhing on the ground like a crushed scorpion, his limbs jerking in every direction - unforgettable!," she once recalled in conversation with me. When in 1988 her play Thursday's Ladies, admirably translated by Barbara Bray, was finally produced at the Apollo Theatre in London, starring Eileen Aitkins, Dorothy Tutin and Sian Phillips, three great actresses she had always loved and admired. To her sadness the play's moderate success did not lead to other productions of her work. "It was not le cup of tea of the British!," she joked without resentment.

I met Bellon and Claude Roy when I was a student in Paris. They befriended me, and Loleh became my "older friend", a role model and an inspiration. Her eccentricity - which she insisted was English - her charm and joie de vivre, her beauty and talent captivated all those who met her. Later when I married my English husband and moved to London, they kept in touch, coming to stay from time to time. They often lent me their beautiful apartment in St Germain-des-Pres when they travelled, and I wrote my first book staying there.

Loleh Bellon was preternaturally youthful - her delicate beauty, her sense of humour, her girlish laughter, remained unimpaired until the end. She was deeply affected by Claude Roy's death, and was just emerging from mourning, working on a new play, when she died suddenly of a brain haemorrhage.

Shusha Guppy

Marie-Laure (Loleh) Bellon, actress and playwright: born Bayonne, France 14 May 1925; married first Jorge Semprun (one son; marriage dissolved), second Claude Roy (died 1997); died Paris 22 May 1999.