Obituary: Lys Gauty

Alice Bonnefoux Gauthier (Lys Gauty), singer: born Levallois-Perret, France 2 February 1900; married 1925 Gaston Groeuer; died Cap d'Ail 2 January 1994.

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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Recruitment Genius: HR and Payroll Manager

£35000 - £38000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This dynamic outsourced contact...

Recruitment Genius: Production & Quality Control Assistant

£19000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An excellent opportunity for a ...

Ashdown Group: Group HR Advisor - Kettering - £32,000

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Group HR Advisor with an established...

Guru Careers: HR Manager / HR Generalist

£40 - 50k (DOE) + Bonus: Guru Careers: We are seeking a HR Manager / HR Genera...

Day In a Page

No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor