03 May 2015


On 30 April. French singer and actress Patachou (1918-2015) passed away. She was a mythical icon of the French chanson. With her full voice and typical Parisian accent, Patachou was very popular in France during the 1950s, and also had a successful international career. She discovered singer Georges Brassens and song writer Guy Béart. She also appeared on stage and in several French films, including a memorable turn as the charming grand-mother Mathilde in the art-house hit Drôle de Félix/Funny Felix (2000).

Vintage postcard, no. GF 025 66/18. Photo: Philips.

Puff Dough

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.

Sunshine Girl

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.

Charming Grand-mother

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.


BeachILike said...

I'm amazed with her jump!

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BeachILike said...
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Snap said...

It's always interesting to visit and learn about European film stars. Happy PFF.

Beth Niquette said...

What an interesting woman she was! She is not classically beautiful, so must have had bundles and oodles of personality. And wow--she was athletic, too! I love the postcard of her hopping into the air.

So...what celebration happens in January in The Netherlands which is somewhat like our Thanksgiving here in America?

Forgive my curiosity, and Happy PFF!

Anonymous said...

I love your blog. Every time I check in here I get a comprehensive crash course on some star I know little or nothing about. Afterward I wonder how I could have missed knowing about these people. I am so grateful to you.

Bob of Holland said...

Thank you for your comments. I knew Patachou only from her role in Drôle de Felix and was surprised to discover that she had been such an interesting and energetic - performer.

We don't know Thanksgiving in the Netherlands, but Christmas and 31 December are huge culinary events. And my mother is having her birthday early January. So after that January is my month for intensive fitness, swimming, jogging, biking, to lose those extra kilos.

I hope to meet you again at next PFF.

Sheila said...

She looks as though she has great energy and personality. Unfortunately the video of Les Innocents wasn't available for me to see.

Bob of Holland said...

YouTube removed the video. I've changed it with Chanson d'Irma La Douce. I hope you'll enjouy this song.

kaatjeaster said...

Aangezien je een clip van mijn Youtube channel gebruikt van Patachou, moet je ook eens kijken naar de Trio Lescano clips (ook van anderen zoals maxmenox60 en annanoli. Drie Joodse Nederlandse meisjes die een film/zangcarrière opbouwden in Italië in de jaren dertig. Deze dames behoren zeker in het rijtje van European Film Stars thuis. Net als hun moeder Eva de Leeuwe, behorend tot de toneelfamilies van de Leeuwes (o.a. Enny Mols-de Leeuwe) en de Bambergs).
Ik kan je uitgebreid (Nederlands) materiaal leveren, daar ik heb meegewerkt aan de (Italiaanse) website over hun leven en carrière.


Bob of Holland said...

Hallo Kaatje,

Bedankt voor je reactie.
Erg interessant, Trio Lescano. Voor de blog zijn ansichtkaarten altijd de aanleiding voor een post en helaas hebben we die niet van deze meisjes.
Als jij die wel hebt, zou het geweldig zijn om die een keer te gebruiken. Kun je ons dan misschien een jpg sturen? Namens EFSP alvast hartelijk dank,


kaatjeaster said...

Vertel me even hoe ik materiaal kan opsturen, want ik zie op jouw blog geen email of ander contact. Zit momenteel in Rome op Trio Lescano jacht, maar eind van de maand ben ik terug