Juliette Gréco’s recent death in her nineties brought back some melodramatic memories. In 1957 Gréco was one of France’s premier chanteuses of torch songs, a very sexy young woman dressed in black with auburn hair and very white skin who sang of doomed love and romantic longing.
Darryl F. Zanuck, the legendary one-time head of Twentieth Century Fox, fell rather hard when he saw her perform in a Parisian Left Bank bistro and decided to make her a film star. While casting The Roots of Heaven, the movie that would be her introduction, Zanuck and La Greco moved to the French Riviera, where Zanuck gambled very large sums at the chemmy table every night at the Cannes summer casino. Juliette sat next to him and played every hand he did but with much smaller sums.
Rather a long way away from the French Riviera, a 20-year-old me was a struggling tennis player on the circuit, and in August of that year, after a heartbreaking loss in Deauville, I had had enough. I decided to go to the Riviera where my best friend Yanni Zographos held court at the Hôtel du Cap every summer. Yanni was the nephew and an heir of the man who broke the bank in Monte Carlo having figured out the odds in the game of baccarat. Nico Zographos took over the bank in various casinos during the 1920s and, never having married, left a large fortune to his nephews and nieces.
Yanni reserved a room for me at the Carlton in Cannes, room 303, without a sea view and looking onto the large courtyard. I would stay for two days and then move to the more salubrious surroundings of the Hôtel du Cap. I arrived at the fabled land of Fitzgerald having been there first five years before with my parents. This time I was determined to make it count. The trouble was that when Yanni and I arrived at the casino on my first night on the town, I had a high fever as a result of a bad cold. The temperature and the non-stop drinks were a bad mix, and as I watched Juliette and Darryl gambling I imagined that she looked at me and smiled. I informed Yanni of the fact. Later on, feeling very out of sorts, I was dropped off at my hotel and fell asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow. I was awoken abruptly when my door opened and a woman came in. ‘It’s me, Juliette. Do not turn on the light,’ she whispered.
She undressed and slithered naked under the sheets. Everything I’d ever read or imagined about the south of France went racing through my befogged mind, but what I hadn’t expected were the howls that Juliette let out as we began our lovemaking. Shutters banged and lights were turned on as her screams echoed around the cavernous courtyard. Things quietened down rather quickly after that — I was, after all, not yet 21 — and she dressed hurriedly, kissed me goodnight and left in the dark. What a way to start my stay on the French Riviera was my only thought as I went to sleep.
Youth is not characterized by discretion, and in the morning I told Yanni, who had a sly smile on his face when he asked me how my evening had gone, about my nocturnal visit. He congratulated me, as did Julien, the fabled concièrge of the Carlton, who controlled everything and was the most important person to know on the Riviera.
That evening, feeling better but still with a fever, I returned to the casino with Yanni after a sumptuous dinner and lots of champagne on the terrace of the Carlton. Darryl and Juliette were at their usual table punting away. I caught her eye and gave her a big smile but she did not respond. I figured it was just the cynical sexual reality of the Riviera, a baptism of fire so to speak.
Unbelievably, my door opened again at around 4.30 a.m. that morning and Juliette Gréco came in silently, undressed and got into bed with me. This time her love-making shrieks prompted a fellow guest to announce: ‘Ça recommence.’ She followed the same procedure and left after a brief, wordless kiss in the dark.
The next morning, packed for the move to Antibes, I told Yanni over the telephone that as Zanuck had a cabana next to his, I would bring things to a head where Juliette was concerned. ‘I’ve had it with this bullshit. If I’m good enough to sleep with…’ Yanni didn’t say a word. As I paid my small bill, Julien took me aside. Looking like a wise uncle, he advised me not to make a fuss because Zanuck was a very jealous man. ‘And, after all, it wasn’t Mlle Gréco who visited you these past two nights but a popular streetwalker known as the screamer. It was Monsieur Zographos’s idea — I just chose the lady of the night. She looks like Gréco, n’est-ce pas?’
As far as jokes go, this one was brilliant. I fell for it and then some. Every time I saw Juliette on screen after that, I felt cheated somehow. And I often wondered whether, if I’d ever actually met her, I would have told her what had transpired.
This article was originally published in The Spectator’s December 2020 US edition.