One of the most troubling stories of a French musician during WWII is that of the singer Maurice Chevalier. During WWI, Chevalier was injured, taken prisoner in Germany for two years, and only released through the intervention of fellow-singer Mistinguett and her admirer, King Alfonso XIII of Spain. When WWII broke out in 1939, Chevalier was performing to packed houses in the new revue Bonjour Paris (Hello Paris) at the Casino de Paris. Subsequent events have generally been explained as follows: after initially refusing, he was seduced by the Nazis into collaborating, and he reaped the rewards of performing in Germany. After the liberation he was arrested, and despite being acquitted, experienced persistent hostility. In reality, however, Chevalier’s story is more complicated and moving than it initially appears.
As the Nazis approached France in the spring of 1940, people began to leave Paris, and Chevalier’s audience dwindled. By the time Dunkirk was attacked at the end of May, the Casino had been forced to close and Chevalier and his wife Nita left for the Dordogne (in south west France, at that point free from the Nazi occupation and governed by Vichy). With the signing of the Armistice, they moved to La Bocca with a group of friends, some of them Jewish. Showbiz investors tried to persuade stars to return to the capital, blackmailing Chevalier and assuring him that the Nazis would treat him well. He refused. Significantly, he also turned down invitations from Broadway and Hollywood which would have provided him with a safe way out.
Chevalier and his friends set up a company to tour the free provinces, visiting hundreds of towns. But the blackmail from Paris continued, with newspapers criticising him for enjoying a luxurious vacation. In September 1941, Chevalier returned to Paris for a short stint at the Casino. He faced hostility from all quarters: Radio-Paris refused to welcome him because he had sung before the King and Queen of England shortly before, and when he refused to comment on politics, giving the statement, 'I am against the war like everyone else and I think there should be better understanding between different peoples', the newspaper Le Petit Parisien (The Little Parisian) published an article entitled, 'Maurice Chevalier preaches collaboration between the French and the Germans'. It later emerged that the paper had been taken over by the German Propaganda bureau, but this did little to clear Chevalier’s name.
The Nazis also used this trip to exert pressure on Chevalier to sing in Germany. In an effort to avoid becoming politically involved, Chevalier declined. However, he did make two gestures of solidarity to France: he agreed to donate his proceeds from the Casino (over 1 million francs) to French prisoners of war, and he also sang at the camp where he himself had been a prisoner in WWI, in exchange for 10 prisoners being freed, on the understanding that there would be no publicity. Unfortunately, a few days after he returned, a London paper reported the event, but riddled with misinformation. It announced that he had sung everywhere in Germany except the prison camps and concluded that he was pro-Nazi.
Chevalier returned to the unoccupied zone, only undertaking one more short engagement at the Casino in December 1942. His experiences this time led him to vow to give up the stage entirely until after the liberation. The Nazis took this badly and blackmailed Chevalier with warnings that his refugee friends would suffer if he refused to return and perform in Paris. Chevalier pretended he was ill to avoid the problem. He and Nita stayed in Vichy France, listening in secret to Radio-Londres, and every evening a songwriter who had recently escaped to London listed the names of notorious French collaborators. In February 1944, Chevalier appeared on this list. One of the heads of the Resistance got a message to London which was broadcast, saying, 'Mistake on Maurice Chevalier. Maurice has given proof of his loyalty and will give more'. But the damage was already done.
Chevalier was now under threat from every side: he feared the Nazis because Nita and her parents were surviving on false papers, and he feared the resistance fighters who had heard his name on the radio. Chevalier, Nita and her parents all fled to the Dordogne, and fortunately, the Allies landed in Normandy soon after, on 6 June 1944. But Chevalier was not out of danger yet. Hearing that both the Maquis and the police were hunting him, he went into hiding. The next day, a rumour began that Chevalier had been killed by the Maquis, and the Swiss, London and Paris radios added fuel to the fire by broadcasting the story. The German radio gave the short obituary:
Little by little the details of the death of the popular artiste Maurice Chevalier are coming in. Recognised on the street by a group of patriots, he was arrested by them. He was beaten to death with blunt instruments and brass knuckles. His only crimes were singing in France during the German occupation and going to Germany to take a little comfort to our prisoners.
The police ignored the rumours and kept up their hunt. Soon after, three armed men arrived at the house and took Chevalier away for questioning. Chevalier was informed that he had been sentenced to death for collaborating. He was taken to Toulouse, but on the way managed to get a message to his secretary in Paris who passed the details to a reporter from the Daily Express. This reporter set about uncovering the truth, and even found the man who had denounced him on Radio-Londres, who met Chevalier to apologise. Chevalier was finally rescued by Paramount News, which sent a plane to Paris to collect him saying they wanted to make a film about Chevalier's experiences in the war. In his autobiography, Chevalier wrote:
An entertainer's profession is his whole life. If we have to fight for France or die for her, we are ready to do so. But the rest of the time we just want to be left alone. I suppose we feel that we are doing our share by giving laughter and gaiety to the nation.
Chevalier’s case will always draw suspicion, but it also highlights the catch-22 situation experienced by many musicians in wartime France, who simply could not avoid getting entangled in the political crisis.
By Daisy Fancourt
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