Wars have the capacity to make or break an artistic life. For Yves Montand, World War II achieved both of these extremes. When the Nazis began their conquest of Europe in 1939, Montand was following a slow but steady rise to fame through his singing. His agent was drafted into the army, however, and with the onset of economic hardship Montand was forced to take a job in the Marseilles shipyards. In September 1940, Montand’s brother was taken prisoner, and life threatened to crumble further. These difficulties prompted Montand to start singing for his co-workers to boost morale, and it was this that began his new – this time meteoric – rise to stardom.
In 1941 Montand’s singing talent was spotted and he gave a concert in April in Saint-Antoine. This was a success, with critics praising him as an imitator of French stars Charles Trenet and Maurice Chevalier, so he began a tour of the Marseilles area, including a concert in October 1941 in the presence of Pétain. From here, he embarked on a busy career in shows, concerts, and even as an extra in the film La Priere aux Étoiles (Prayer to the Stars). It may have seemed that the war going on around him was having little impact on his singing.
However, in March 1942, Montand was called for Chantiers de la Jeunesse (Youth Workers) labour camp service. The Chantiers had been created to find work for the 100,000 youths hastily drafted into the army as France was falling. They had been dispatched to the countryside without time to fight. The scheme was so successful in manual labour that it was given official status by Pétain. Montand was assigned to the entertainment section, but despite this, did very little singing. Instead, he set up a system with his sister so that whenever a famous singer came to Marseilles, she wrote a fake letter pretending a relative had died so that he could have the day off. Through this method, Montand managed to see Maurice Chevalier perform and even sang, himself, at the Marseilles Opera. When he was released from service in October, he picked his career up exactly where he had left off.
Unfortunately for Montand, less than a year later, in September 1943, he was called up again, this time for the compulsory labour service Service de Travail Obligatoire (STO). The French policeman who drafted him to his division recognised Montand and decided to help him by assigning him to the Selisia salt mines, which was the only labour division that offered the opportunity for young men to escape. Whilst waiting for the train to arrive, a policeman explained that on the way to the mines, the train would slow at Dijon where Montand should jump in order to join the boys hiding in Vercors. Had it not been for Montand's sister, this would perhaps have been the start of his involvement with the Maquis Resistance groups hiding in that area. However, unaware of this secret plan, his sister set about trying to rescue him, and in the end managed to obtain a letter from a senior pro-Nazi in the Parti Populaire Français (French Popular Party) which allowed Montand to be released from duty.
Just four months later, in January 1944, the STO came after Montand again. This time he hid to avoid them before accepting a contract for the ABC, Paris's most prestigious music hall. This was Montand's first foray into the cultural world of the capital and he was an immediate success, singing at cabarets and music halls all over Paris. His swing style caused some initial problems, and he was called to the German propaganda censor's bureau because his jazz influences were seen as threatening to Nazi rule. He refused to change his style, however, and when it became clear that he had no political agenda, the Nazis began to see him as less of a threat. In fact, they turned a blind eye to the fact that he regularly breached curfew and did not hold valid papers. In August 1944 he became the warm-up act to Edith Piaf, with whom he began a relationship. She took him under her wing, and it was her influence, and her encouragement to expand his repertoire to include love songs, that raised his fame further after 1945.
Montand was one of the musicians who did not really suffer during the war. He certainly had to be careful, partly because of his original surname Livi: because of the similarities to the Jewish name 'Levi', he was twice accused of being Jewish. (This bears similarities to Charles Trenet, who had to escape accusations that his surname was simply an anagram of the Jewish name ‘Netter’.) The first accusation was in the Youth Camp where he and three Jewish boys were called in front of an inspector, and it was only because Montand corrected the pronunciation of his surname that he escaped. (The other boys were sent to a concentration camp). The second time was in the summer of 1943, when a liaison with a Greek girl provoked an alarming reaction: on seeing him naked, the girl started screaming and ran away. A few days later Montand saw her with a German man who accused him of being Jewish and scrutinised his papers. It was only later that Montand realised the girl's fear had been because of a skin infection he had had as a child which had left him looking circumcised. In light of these misunderstandings, Montand jokingly referred to himself as 'an honourary Jew'. However, this did not encourage him to engage in any sort of resistance activity.
This might seem surprising, as resistance was in the family: Montand's father worked as part of a network of Italian anti-Fascists, printing leaflets on a clandestine mimeograph machine and distributing them in Marseilles. He also sheltered some refugees. But Montand claims in his autobiography that he did not really understand what was going on. He also refused to join the Maquis in January 1944 because he maintained he did not understand the political situation well enough. In his autobiography, he wrote that his interest in the war 'was only relative'. The only action Montand did get involved with was the protection of the Comedie-Française theatre three days before the liberation. The pattern of secret knocks (two slow, four fast) and the passwords needed for the entry might have given him the thrill of secret work. But the entire arsenal only consisted of three grenades and a rifle, and no clandestine activity took place.
Despite this, Montand was at the time given credit for resistance activity. Shortly before the liberation, the producer Jacques Baudry, who was affiliated with the Resistance, accidentally shot Montand in the thumb whilst playing around with a gun. When Montand appeared on stage that evening with his arm in a sling, he was rumoured to have been involved in a trap that had taken place that day: 42 resistance workers in their late teens had been shot near a waterfall in Bois de Boulogne by French police, and Montand was rumoured to be one of the martyrs who had miraculously escaped. This story afforded him great popularity among the French populace.
Montand apparently saw his first photos of liberated camps in 1945. He was so deeply affected that he became reclusive and began carrying photos in his pockets, including the now-iconic image of a child in the Warsaw ghetto with his hands in the air. It seems that the lack of effect the war had on him at the time was down to his complete ignorance of the situation around him, caught up as he was in the bubble of popularity and fame.
By Daisy Fancourt
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Fiss, Karen Grand Illusion: The Third Reich, The Paris Exposition, and the Cultural Seduction of France (Chicago, 2009)
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Montand, Yves You See, I haven't forgotten (Chatto, 1992)
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Tournes, Ludovic 'Le jazz: un espace de liberté pour un phénomene culturel en voie d'identification' La Vie Musicale Sous Vichy, ed. Chimenes, (Brussels, 2001)