Category Archives: Performers

Stories and biographies of singers and dancers.

Polnareff, père et fils

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‘Amarantina’ by Léo Poll, published by the composer (Paris, sd).

Léo Poll, the creator and publisher of the Argentinian tango ‘Amarantina’, was a Russian Jew. He was born in Odessa in 1899 as Leib Polnareff. In 1923 Leib Polnareff arrived in Paris where he became a pianiste-démonstrateur or a song plugger. A piano player was employed by music publishers and music stores to help sell new sheet music. In the office or shop, patrons could select any title, which was then delivered to the song plugger who started to play the tune so that the customer could decide whether to buy the sheet music.
Leib Polnareff chose the pseudonym Léo Poll and became a well-known piano player accompanying vedettes such as Edith Piaf and Charles Trenet. He also composed and arranged several songs and he even had his own orchestra ‘Léo Poll et son orchestre’. You can listen to his composition ‘Un jeune homme chantait’ performed by the legendary Edith Piaf:

un jeune homme chantait
‘Un jeune homme chantait’ by Léo Poll & Raymond Asso, published by Les Editions de Paris in 1937 and illustrated by Würth.

During the Second World War, Léo Poll and his wife fled Paris to the country side in the Zone Libre. They were very lucky to end up  in the small village Nérac. There, despite the presence of the Gestapo, a young girl of 16 who worked for the mayor forged identity papers for Jews. Thanks to her Léo Poll escaped deportation and extermination. Quite the heroine, Odile Perella-Dubergey! Still, she had to wait 70 years to be honoured for risking her life in the Resistance.

In 1944 the couple got a little boy: Michel Polnareff who would become a popular singer-songwriter in France from the mid-1960s on. After the war the family returned to Paris where Michel grew up in an artistic environment. He learned to play the piano when he was 4 years old and at 11 he won a premier prix at the Paris Conservatoire. He also learned the guitar and started busking in Montmartre in 1964.

In 1966 his first disc La poupée qui fait non was an unexpected but phenomenal success.

The androgynous Michel Polnareff was a non-conformist who liked to provoke. That caused him a lot of problems during his career. The most spectacular drawback happened in 1972. For his show ‘Polnarévolution‘ at the Olympia, six thousand posters showing the singer with naked buttocks hung across billboards all over France. Polnareff was found guilty of ‘gross indecency’ and was fined 10 francs per poster.

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Poster for Polnarévolution at the Olympya in Paris, 1972, a collectors item!

Recently Michel Polnareff settled accounts with his father Leib in his autobiography Spèrme. Allegedly, Léo Poll was a tyrannical brute at home, forcing his son to practice the piano for hours on end and hitting him with his belt.

Love me please love me...

Suzanne Lenglen: a tough Mademoiselle

suzanne lenglen
‘Ah! Suzanne!’ by Christiné, Willemetz & Saint-Granier published by Salabert, Paris in 1926 and illustrated by Roger de Valerio.

To avoid all confusion: it is not a picture of Suzanne Lenglen on this sheet music cover, but of the French singer Saint-Granier. In 1926 he made a ‘hilarious’ performance imitating Suzanne Lenglen in the Casino de Paris. We don’t know if it was extremely amusing, but his burlesque imitation at least looks kind of funny.

saint granier en suzanne lenglen
Left Saint-Granier in the Casino de Paris with next to his head, his own portrait. Right Suzanne Lenglen in Wimbledon, 1919. Both picture: Bibliothèque Nationale de France

Saint-Granier (Jean de Granier de Cassagnac) was a nobleman from Gascogne who made a career as a journalist, writer, lyricist, singer and actor in Paris.

saint granier images mysterieuseFor a hallucinating experience concentrate on the four dots on Saint-Granier’s nose, count to 40 and then stare at an even area. Slowly, mysteriously and straight from the Roaring Twenties, Saint-Granier will appear before your very eyes! This beats getting drunk.

The charismatic Suzanne Lenglen was named La Divine or the goddess by the French press and was one of the first celebrity athletes. She revolutionised and dominated women’s tennis from the end of the First World War until 1926. She was coached by her Papa and trained by male players on the Côte d’Azur. She played a man’s game, in an aggressive serve-and-volley style and serving overhead. Sometimes, during a tough game, a sip of brandy and a curse would propel Suzanne to victory. It helped her win six Wimbledon singles titles. Moreover during her career she only lost one match.

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Evolution of tennis outfits. Left: ‘Lieb’ Kätchen’ by Otto Becker, published by Odeon, Berlin. Right: ‘C’est l’amour’ by Maurice Yvain, published by Salabert, Paris in 1922 and illustrated by Roger de Valerio.

She was also a flamboyant and graceful player and in spite of her homely face she became a fashion muse. Suzanne Lenglen brought the glamour of the French Riviera to Wimbledon. In 1919 during her first appearance there she made it clear that the jazz age was on its way. Her opponent in the final, the seven-time Wimbledon champion and the title-holder, was dressed in an ankle-lenght skirt, with the shirt fastened at the wrists and neck and a corset underneath. Suzanne Lenglen won (albeit not without a struggle) in a short-sleeved frock reaching to the calves and her hair bobbed.

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Suzanne Lenglen, French championships 1922 (source: Bibliothèque Nationale de France).

She would kick her legs high up in the air, not minding at all that one could see her pants or get a glimpse of a bare thigh. Instantly she became the goddess of tennis and an example for all flappers. Her dress code would be copied worldwide on and off the court. She usually made her entrance in a fur or fur-trimmed coat which she even showed off during breaks, regardless of the heat. Underneath she wore flimsy Art-Deco ensembles created by Jean Patou, stockings rolled to the knee held by a cerise garter, and a brightly coloured silk chiffon bandeau on her head.

An excerpt from British Pathé’s ‘How I Play Tennis – By Mlle. Suzanne Lenglen (1925)‘, a 16-minute silent documentary.

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‘Juego limpio’ by Francisco Canaro, published by Breyer Hermanos, Buenos Aires, s.d.

Apart from gossipy proposals from dukes, counts, earls and American millionaires, and contrary to tabloid reports of pending engagements with wealthy gentlemen, Suzanne never got married nor engaged. So she wasn’t lucky in love, nor in her later life: she died suddenly when she was only 39 years old.

'Amour et Tennis' sheet music cover illustrated by Pousthomis
‘Amour et Tennis’ by Darewski and Chapelle, published by Edouard Salabert, Paris, 1908, illustrated by Pousthomis.

Suzanne Lenglen was an enthusiastic dancer. She even claimed the fox-trot, the tango and her favourite, the shimmy, were excellent training for tennis. It was maybe this love for dancing together with her graceful acrobatics on the court that inspired Diaghilev and his Ballets Russes. His production Le Train Bleu by Jean Cocteau (scenario) and Darius Milhaud (music) staged a tennis player based on the elegant Mademoiselle Lenglen.

Re-staging of Le Train Bleu by the Paris Opera in 1992. Music by Darius Milhaud. Costumes by Coco Chanel.

A fierce redhead: Gaby Montbreuse

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‘Avec son pied’ by Georges Krier, published by Krier, s.d. and illustrated by Gaston Girbal.

For this cover Gaston Girbal drew a caricature of Gaby Montbreuse with a characteristic oversized bow in her hair.

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Portrait of Gaby Montbreuse, s.d.

Little is known about her rather short life. In 1913 Gaby Montbreuse (Julia Hérissé) made her debut at 18 with the song Sur la Riviera, composed by Léo Daniderff. It is said that Daniderff was her companion for some years and wrote many of her songs, the best known Je cherche après Titine.

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‘Sur la Riviera’ by Léo Daniderff, published by Daniderff in 1913 and illustrated by Armengol.

It is odd that at least two of her well-known songs of her early career were also sung by a ‘Gaby Zetty’ (or Zety?) about whom even less is known… An alter ego, a competitor or an abandoned nom d’artiste? Bizarre…

Petits formats sheet music on Gaby Zetty
Three ‘petits formats’ sheet music covers on which appear the link between Léo Daniderff’s songs and a (mysterious) Gaby Zetty or Zety.

Gaby Montbreuse’s picture on the cover of Sur la Riviera still looks quite conventional but she would become increasingly extravagant.

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Left, portrait of Gaby Montbreuse on an artist postcard. Right, ‘Cécile et ses cils’ by Eugène Gavel published by Max Eschig in 1924 and illustrated by Gaston Girbal.

The composer Georges Van Parys who accompanied her on the piano in 1924 described her in his journal without mincing his words:
“She surely is ugly and looks awful. A huge round head, absolutely disproportionate to her body. A shock of curly red hair, with a lock tumbling on her forehead. Very useful, this lock: she gets a comic effect by blowing on it when she feels in the middle of a song that it does not work well. Made up like a baby doll, with eyelashes painted like a fan upon her eyelids. Her voice is working-class, vulgar, cracked by abuse. Vulgar gestures are carefully studied. All this would, without doubt, be unacceptable from someone else. But the good woman is so funny that even the most critical are quickly disarmed. Uplifting her skirt with her left hand, she begins to sing eye-watering silly verses. Yet she manages to make people laugh who, until proven otherwise, seem perfectly normal.”

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‘Dolly-Schimmy’ (sic) by Félix Fourdrain, published by Choudens, Paris in 1922. Clérice frères illustrated this typical Montbreuse-like doll of the Twenties.

Pol Rab also caricatured Montbreuse’s physique on sheet music covers from the Parisian Années Folles.

Caricatures of Gaby Montbreuse by Pol Rab
Left: ‘Hé! Prends ton temps’ by Vincent Scotto. Right: ‘A tes amours’ by Vincent Scotto. Both published by Les Editions du Music-Hall (Enoch), Paris in 1925 and illustrated by Pol Rab.

After performing in all the well-known Parisian cabarets and a short film career, she opened her own night club ‘Le Château Montbreuse’ in the late Twenties. Alas, her venue went bust in the early Thirties, and she again appeared in the entertainment programs of other concert halls and clubs. Not much is known about the rest of her life, but she reportedly died in Tours in 1943.

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Gaby Montbreuse in her nightclub Le Château Montbreuse, where she sings for her rich patrons, selling them champagne. Drawing by Carl Erickson for Vogue 1927.

If you are curious about her voice, here she sings the bawdy Tu m’as possédée par surprise.

Tu m’as possédée par surprise (for the french lyrics, click here)

And if Gaby Montbreuse were a man and a hippie, maybe she would have looked like Armand. He was a protest singer, nicknamed the Dutch Bob Dylan (for lack of better). I adored him in the late Sixties when I still thought all was love, peace and happiness. Even in his sixties he dignified to keep his Sixties look. But his iconic song from 1967 hasn’t changed a lot. Groovy, outta sight man!