Yvonne Cloetta

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Yvonne Guével: born Pontrieux, France 17 January 1923; married 1947 Jacques Cloetta (two daughters); died Cannes, France 3 November 2001.

"If she didn't exist, I'd put a bullet through my head." Life and death were as simple as that for Graham Greene, when I last saw him in October 1990, six months before he died. Tired but alert, he was gathering his forces around that "she", in that intense, pathetic, and surprisingly youthful remark.

"She", of course, was Yvonne Cloetta, "la petite bretonne", born Yvonne Guével, Greene's companion for 32 years; actually his profound, essential human tie, I believe. Time and again he told her, "I love you forever and the longest day"; on the back of a photograph Yvonne showed me in their Swiss flat where Greene shared his last two years with her, he wrote, "I could not live without you", or much earlier, on another picture, "For Yvonne, 1959-1978: If I were to live my life again, there is only one thing I would want unchanged: meeting you, knowing you, and loving you."

Those words of passion may sound strange today, to British ears, on the death of Yvonne Cloetta, 10 years after that of Graham Greene. Suddenly there re-enters the discreet "French mistress" for whom a great English writer had "defected" to Antibes, in the mid-1960s, settling close to where she lived with her two young daughters, while her husband, Jacques, worked in Africa . . . Yet "she", the "Happy Healthy Kitten" sometimes debased by critics, might be the key, not only to an exceptional love story, but also to a fuller understanding of Greene's personality.

For Greene had been leaving tangible traces of a not so secret affair, after all. He left many proofs of their mutual attachment: comments in the margins of a sober diary Yvonne kept, personal hand-written dédicaces to her in all his books, plus some 280 letters – some acquired in 1999 by Georgetown University. Except that all those traces were for Yvonne's eyes only (apart from the much- quoted printed dedication to Travels with My Aunt, 1969, where the mischievous "H.H.K." appears). And Yvonne's eyes were, in spite of their frankness, most secretive, save when she was looking at Graham, always in sheer adoration. "My whole life has been a secret," she once admitted.

Yvonne Cloetta was a major witness to Greene's activities – next to him when he negotiated from Antibes the fate of hostages in South America for instance. She was his sweet "confidential agent", even, at times not so rare, his travel companion – present when he met Kim Philby again in Moscow, sharing his friends, Max and Joan Reinhardt, the Chaplins, A.S. Frere and his wife Pat, to name a few. She was the helper in the shadows for the supervision of translations of his books into French – having worked on one, I can testify to her accuracy.

But Yvonne, actually shy and totally immersed in the mutual love that filled the world for her, stuck to "secrets", private or more political ones, almost to her very end. Almost . . . No doubt she carried some away, just as Greene must have done. Because her first concern was not to betray the faith he had put in her, not to betray the secretive man with whom she had been sharing the shadows and the bliss. She was not interested in her own life, or what posterity made of it; indeed her death was not made public for four months.

She remained silent for years; expressing herself on rare occasions – a BBC tribute to Greene, a brief but well-written introduction to Greene's dream-diary (World of My Own, 1992), a biting public letter to a woman writer who, according to her, had produced a biased portrait of Greene.

Because she had great sex appeal, some critics tried to suggest that this was the reason for Greene's involvement, or to posthumously "punish" Greene. Hadn't both lovers infringed social mores? Yvonne was born in 1924, in Pontrieux on the Côtes d'Armor, into a devoutly Catholic family, and educated at the lycée in Quimper. She was married (to a businessman; she had been his secretary), and 19 years younger than Greene, also married, when they met in Douala, in the Cameroons, in early March 1959. Afterwards, neither of them ever divorced: weren't they a little too happy in their discreet intimacy?

Well, those who try to discredit her will have to eat their words. Her intelligence and perceptiveness were obvious: as when she narrated (even though sparingly) her life with Greene to the friends she trusted. Not only did Yvonne Cloetta love Greene, but she understood him. And became a vital element for him.

Yvonne had been tempted to keep to herself the images of a loving Greene, now grown stable, and content with knowing that he would be "the best and the last". But grief was so tenacious, passion so vivid, the need to speak about him so pressing, that she had to let go. Which she finally did. With all her scruples. For she kept in mind Greene's warning: "Poor you, I'm afraid the day will come when you have to face some biographers. In that case, either you refuse to talk altogether . . . But if you do, do tell the truth, not in the middle."

Although what is meant by "middle" is difficult to appreciate, Yvonne Cloetta didn't dodge her responsibilities. We had been working on a modest book together. We were completing the last chapter. She was already fairly ill when, somehow, she unconsciously must have decided that time was up. That Graham, over there, had been waiting for too long.

Marie-Françoise Allain