Vintage postcard, no. GF 025 66/18. Photo: Philips.
Patachou was born as Henriette Eugénie Jeanne Ragon in Paris, in the poor, working-class district of Ménilmontant, in 1918. Her father was a ceramist, her mother a housewife. Henriette grew up as an only child in a family where the household income was modest, but parents and child were remarkably close.
She began her working life as a typist, then worked as a factory worker, a shoeseller, and as an antique dealer. In 1948, with her husband Jean Billou, she took over a cabaret-restaurant on the butte of Montmartre, called Patachou. Henriette became a popular fixture behind the bar.
She became famous for snipping off the ends of customers' ties! and also performed in her patisserie-bistro at the request of the guests. One of those guests was the famous entertainer Maurice Chevalier, who encouraged her to become a professional singer. French journalists began to call her Lady Patachou after the name of her cabaret restaurant (pâte-à-choux means cream puff dough).
She sang pre-war songs like Mon homme and Domino. Many chanson singers like Édith Piaf, Jacques Brel and Charles Aznavour also performed in her cabaret-restaurant. From 1952 her first records appeared; she appeared at Bobino, a Montparnasse music-hall, toured in France and then further afield.
In 1952, the then unknown Georges Brassens sang there, and together Patachou and he sang the duet Maman, papa. Patachou was the first interpreter of his songs like Le bricoleur and La chasse aux papillons, and she introduced them to a broad audience. Later she would be the first to perform songs by Guy Béart, the father of film star Emmanuelle Béart.
French postcard by Editions P.I., no. 540. Photo: Staval.
Dutch postcard by Gebr. Spanjersberg N.V., Rotterdam, for Philips Grammofoonplaten, no. 5132. Photo: Editions ALTONA, Amsterdam.
Patachou also became popular as a film star in the early 1950s. She appeared in the films Femmes de Paris/Women of Paris (Jean Boyer, 1953), French Cancan (Jean Renoir, 1954) with Jean Gabin, and Napoléon (Sacha Guitry, 1954).
From 1953, she toured through the United States and performed at the Palladium, the Waldorf Astoria, and Carnegie Hall. She stayed for more than 20 years in the US, and performed more than 20 times in the legendary Ed Sullivan Show on TV. The Americans gave her the nickname ‘Sunshine girl’.
Following her divorce, Patachou married the American-born impresario Arthur Lesser and began planning a series of new musicals which she hoped would assure her a major comeback in France. But France was firmly in the grip of the Yé-yé craze and there appeared to be little place for artists of the 'older generation.' Patachou found that out to her cost when she returned to France in the late 1960s.
She soldiered on with her career, nevertheless, performing at small, low-key cabarets and at the restaurant on top of the Eiffel Tower. From the beginning of the 1970s, Patachou toured Japan and Sweden where L'eternal Parigot, with her cheeky Parisian register was still popular.
French postcard by Editions du Globe, no. 264. Photo: Studio Harcourt.
French postcard by Editions du Globe, Paris. Photo: Studio Harcourt, Paris.
Patachou finished her singing career, but in the 1980s she became again a well known actress on television and in the cinema. In 1983, Patachou made her screen come-back, appearing in the television film, Disparu le 7 octobre/Disappeared on 7 October (Jacques Ertaud, 1983).
Rfi music: "This opened a whole new chapter in her career and the French public witnessed their 'chanson' idol blossom into a fully-fledged actress as Patachou enjoyed a new lease of life, playing glamorous grandmothers.
In 1985, Patachou made her début in the French theatre, playing a lead role in Edouard Bourdet's play Le Sexe faible, staged at the Théâtre Hébertot.
Among her later films were Faubourg St Martin (Jean-Claude Guiguet, 1986) with Françoise Fabian, La Rumba (Roger Hanin, 1987) with Michel Piccoli, Pola X (Leos Carax, 1999) with Catherine Deneuve, and Les Acteurs/Actors (Bertrand Blier, 2000).
Probably her best known film role was the charming grand-mother Mathilde in the art-house hit Drôle de Félix/Funny Felix (Olivier Ducastel, Jacques Martineau, 2000) starring Sami Bouajila. Her most recent film was San-Antonio (Frédéric Auburtin, 2003) starring Gérard Depardieu.
Patachou was named Commandeur des Arts et des Lettres in 2004. With Jean Billou she has a son, Pierre Billou, who had a certain success as a singer in the 1970s and wrote J'ai oublié de vivre for Johnny Hallyday. Patachou died of natural causes in Neuilly-sur-Seine near Paris. She was 96.
Patachou sings Chanson d'Irma La Douce. Source: Kaatjeaster (YouTube).
Trailer of Drôle de Félix/Funny Felix (2000). Source: peccadillopictures (YouTube).
Sources: Rfi music, Sylvester Hoogmoed (Het Chanson), Les gens du Cinema (French), Wikipedia and IMDb.