CR Muse: Juliette Gréco’s Bohemian Defiance

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This is CR Muse, a series dedicated to the remembrance of important artists and idea-makers from our past who have shaped culture as we know it today. From traditional creators to those of conceptual thought, we celebrate these women known not only for their work but their confident, eccentric style as well.

Juliette Gréco’s trademark look—dark hair with bangs, and winged eyeliner—was emblematic of a new generation in France in the 20th century. Young, artistically inclined, and eager to have deep discussions about philosophy, the bohemian generation in Paris became iconic for both thought and style. For an example of its global impact, consider Audrey Hepburn’s character in Funny Face. Hepburn’s whole look in the movie (especially when she has a night in Paris to herself) is strikingly similar to Gréco’s aesthetic. But for all the glamour of Gréco’s life today, her early years were frighteningly difficult.

Like many CR Muses, Gréco’s life was horrendously effected by World War II. But unlike the others, her work wasn’t interrupted, because it had yet to begin. As a teenager, Gréco, her mother, and her sister, were all part of a resistance effort in France. At 16 she was arrested by the Gestapo in 1943, and sent to prison. When she was released it was winter, but all she had on was the cotton dress she wore when she arrived. After trekking all the way back to town, friends helped her with food, shelter, and clothing. Because it was her male friends who donated the wears, they were a bit too big for her — but the oversized garments became part of her style.

It feels particularly important when admiring Gréco’s bohemian, new wave identity to take these teenage years into account. In the full context of her life, her look and attitude aren’t just chic and forward-thinking, they are a stunning act of defiance, and people noticed. She had a knack for inspiring some of the greatest minds of the era. As a young woman living on Paris’ left bank, Gréco befriended the likes of Jean Cocteau (who cast her in a movie), Jean-Paul Sartre (who wrote songs for her), and eventually Françoise Sagan, (who cast her in a play). She also met, and fell in love with, Miles Davis.

“Between Miles and me there was a great love affair, the kind you’d want everybody to experience,” she wrote in 2006. Although the young duo were deeply in love, they never married. Davis knew the persecution they would face as an interracial couple in America. While she eventually went on to marry others, she and Davis remained close until he passed away. “Throughout our lives, we were never lost to each other.”

Of course, Gréco’s legacy isn’t solely about how she looked or whom she met. Her deep singing voice popularized songs like “Sous le ciel de Paris” and “Bonjour Tristesse,” both of which were written for films of the same name. Despite the fact that she is better known as a singer, her acting career (which she was originally pursuing) also brought he acclaim, both in France and in Hollywood. Among her biggest titles is the 1957 adaptation of The Sun Also Rises, which co-starred Ava Gardner and Errol Flynn. Despite suffering a heart attack on stage in 2001, Gréco has continued to work into her aged years — her most recent album was released in 2015.

With a life filled with brilliant names, a stunning career, and an iconic look, it’s no wonder she has long defined what it means to be a Parisian for many French designers, including Jean Paul Gaultier, and Hedi Slimane (who cast her in a Saint Laurent “music project” in 2013). It takes someone truly special to break the mold, and Gréco has a long history of doing just that.

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