LYS GAUTY, the grande dame of the classic chanson, well deserved the tribute of monstre sacre bestowed upon her by Colette, Cocteau and the gilded youth of les annees folles between the two wars. She was indeed a sacred monster off stage - Cocteau called her 'a vulture of virtuosity'. The moment she set foot on a stage, in the humblest cabaret or in the grandest music hall and advanced upon her public with a rapacious smile upon her beautiful face, one knew she was about to bruler les planches - burn up the boards and set the stage afire with her strange personality, her unusual, spellbinding vibrato growl and her heart-breaking songs.
Like many such divas and diseuses she was of humble origin. Her father was a garage mechanic who repaired the first cars of le tout Paris. She worked as a shop-girl at Galeries Lafayette to get money to pay for singing lessons: she studied the classics and wanted to star at the Opera. But in the end she used her well-trained voice in cabaret. She married her agent, a Swiss, Gaston Groeuer, in 1925. He took her to Brussels, where he had taken over the direction of the Theatre des Dix Heures, and it was there that she made her first records in 1927, taking as her models such celebrated chanteuses as Yvonne George and Raquel Meller - a combination of poetic expressivity and crisp projection.
She was soon the star of Parisian music halls - the Olympia, the Empire, the Alcazar, the ABC. Her most famous song was 'Le Chalaud qui passe' ('the passing barge') - one of the many evocations of the Seine, actually adapted from the Italian love-song, 'Parla mi d'amore Mario'.
She sang the theme song of Rene Clair's film Quatorze juillet (1930), with music by Maurice Jaubert. She featured in the first French recording of Kurt Weill's The Threepenny Opera which won her a Grand Prix du Disque. Norbert Glauzberg, Kosma and Kurt Weill wrote songs for her. Charles Frenet started off opening the first half of her shows. Kurt Weill gave her another of her successes: 'La Complainte de la Seine'. The populist tone of such songs made Gauty decidedly left-wing. At a period of rampant anti-Semitism in France, she was the one star who had the courage to sing a number in support of the Jews: 'Israel va-t-en', a deeply felt lament of almost unbearable power.
Gauty was finishing a world tour in South America when France was occupied by the Nazis. As soon as she returned to Paris, she was summoned and questioned about her Jewish husband, and about her Polish grandmother (nee Pierkowicz). Under threat of deportation, she agreed, like so many other French artists, to go on tours of Germany. When the end of the war came, she had escaped to Monaco, where her pianist on the radio was Leo Ferre, some of whose first songs she interpreted. With the murderous follies of the Liberation, when 'collaborators' were hunted down, she narrowly escaped assassination: she kept the bullet by her bed as a souvenir. But her singing career was finished. She took over the casino at Luchon, opened a singing school in Nice, started dealing in property in Monaco.
Fortunately, much of her extraordinary talent has been recorded, reissued on CDs, so that the sacred monster who had been so neglected began to make a great comeback in her nineties. One of her movies, La Goualeuse ('The Big Shouter') is available on video, notable mainly for the songs she delivers in that inimitable style - tenderly aggressive, virulent and sad.
We see her wearing her familiar long white gown, clutching her trademark black scarf that she strokes and twists and lets fall at the despairing ends of her songs - she is like a poster by Toulouse-Lautrec, ageless, timeless, and an undying classic.