A Fierce Redhead: Gaby Montbreuse

gaby montbreuse 4 copy
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.

gaby montbreuse 6
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.

sur la riviera copy
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.

gaby montbreuse 3
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.”

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.

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!

I’m Looking For…

'Ich suche Dich Titine (Je cherche après Titine)', by Léo Daniderff and German text by Friedrich Hollaender.
Ich suche Dich Titine’, music by Léo Daniderff and German text by Friedrich Hollaender (Victor Alberti Musikalienhandlung, Berlin, 1922).

This gorgeous sheet music cover was created by Katerina (Käte) Wilczynski. Born in Poznan (1894) she studied and worked in Leipzig and Berlin where she illustrated books. She travelled a lot in Europe, especially to Greece. In 1939 she definitely moved to London where she died (1978). She was known for her portraits and street scenes, later also for her landscape drawings.

A drawing of a street scene in Paris (1928) by Katerina Wilczynski.
Katerina Wilczynski: a street scene in Paris (1928).
Left: illustration for 'Kyrie Eleison' by Waldemar Bonsels (1922). Right: portrait of Joyce Cary by Katerina Wilczynski, pen and ink, 1954 (National Portrait Gallery, London, 4822).
Left: illustration for ‘Kyrie Eleison’ by Waldemar Bonsels (1922). Right: portrait of Joyce Cary by Katerina Wilczynski, pen and ink, 1954 (National Portrait Gallery, London, 4822).

Strangely, having discovered that she was ambidextrous she let each hand play its own part in the creation of the drawing. I love this greeting card that she made for a friend in 1974. Perhaps because travelling by memory is what we also do in this blog with many hands.

Wilczynski's good wishes for 1975, drawn when she was eighty.
Wilczynski’s good wishes for 1975, drawn when she was eighty.

The sheet music above is the German version of the original French song that was sung by so many poilus, as the infantrymen were called during the First World War. The tune of Je cherche après Titine’ had been written by Leo Daniderff (1878-1943), presumably in 1917 for his loved one, the physically disconcerting Gaby Montbreuse. Daniderff had ‘russianised’ his first name (he was born Ferdinand Niquet), which earned him the nickname faux Russe (‘false russian’). This (or his talent) also earned him success: he became the composer of hundreds of popular songs and helped the career of many celebrities.

We haven’t yet found a French copy of Je cherche après Titine’ with a worthy illustrated cover. Here and there you may find a petit format, a small and cheap publication of the song written by Marcel Bertal, Louis Maubon and Emile Ronn.

Petits formats (small sheet music) of 'Je cherche après Titine'.
Je cherche après Titine‘, two ‘petits formats’ or small sheet music found on Du temps des cerises aux feuilles mortes.

In 1922, the same year as the German publication, Carisch launched the Italian version of the song: Io cerco Titina. The flapper on the cover for this ‘ultimo successo internazionale‘ is by Roveroni.

'Io cerca Titina'
Io cerca Titina‘, with Italian lyrics by Guido di Napoli (Casa Editrice Carisch, Milano, 1922).

Not at a viral speed but still in a steady pace, the song conquered the world. In 1924 we find this beautiful American Titina sheet music cover.

Titina sheet music cover by Harms Inc. 1924.
Titina‘, published by Harms Incorporated (New York, unknown illustrator, 1924).

Jack Hylton‘s orchestra popularised Titina as a hyper danceable foxtrot. But we’ll listen instead to a Billy Murray 1925 recording of Titina, and sing along its refrain:

I’m looking for Titina – Titina, my Titina,
I’ve searched from Palistina, to London and Peru.
I’ll die without Titina, I can’t eat my farina,
I don’t want Rose or Lena, Titina I want you.

Warning: the following old label has nothing to do whatsoever with our story, except the brand name and its roaring looks. We couldn’t resist…

Tinned tomatoes.
Titina label for a brand of tinned tomatoes.

There is no better way to conclude this article than by viewing the ultimate Titine dance and singing act by Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times (1936).  How very ironic that for his first ‘talkie’ Chaplin uses nonsense words, or what do you make out of “La spinash o la bouchon Cigaretto Portabello Si rakish spaghaletto Ti la tu la ti la twah” ?

And while for many years the whole world was looking for Titine, at last someone found her:

‘Titine’ by Jacques Brel, 1964.