Leslie Caron: A French Legend Shares Her Life

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St. Germain-des-Prés is as famous for bookshops as for literary giants, names like Miller and Hemingway, de Beauvoir and Boris Vian. Last month the movie star Leslie Caron joined that list. Ensconced at the quartier’s Anglo-American bookstore, the Village Voice, she was promoting a new autobiography, Thank Heaven. This kind of chance to chat with an author is one of the store’s specialties, appreciated as much as their bilingual staff and their up-to-date stock of English-language offerings.

As with most author appearances, the store was crammed; there was hardly room for the petite Madame Caron herself. At 78, she is impressively soignée and stylish. Cinephiles are right, it seems, to have enshrined her in perpetuity as the amoureuse of Gene Kelly’s An American in Paris and the radiant Gigi.

However, these roles are just a piece of the Caron story. She was born into Parisian society, and the ambitions of her mother—an American who once danced on Broadway—propelled Caron toward the stage. At the age of only 9, she undertook a life in ballet. By 16, Caron was the youngest star of Roland Petit’s company (which included Brigitte Bardot), and all of Paris flocked to see her. Visiting movie stars came too, including Gene Kelly.

Caron soon found herself dancing on Kelly’s Hollywood soundstage. She spoke little English, and the studio system baffled her. Nevertheless, An American in Paris made her a star, and Caron was soon appearing opposite Fred Astaire, Mel Ferrer and Maurice Chevalier.

She discovered, however, a penchant for breaking the rules. “I even broke my contract to marry Peter Hall,” she said, referring to the English founder of the Royal Shakespeare Company. After five years and two children, the union foundered. “Having married a movie star, Peter preferred me to stay in the kitchen,” she continued. “But I kept working—and then I met Warren Beatty.”

Caron’s torrid affair with Beatty took her back into Hollywood. “That was the most fantastic life, utterly exhausting! We went out everywhere, every night, we were the perfect movie star couple,” she said.

What was Beatty like? “No one could be more romantic, but Warren is also quite a manager. He told me what to wear, how to style my hair, everything.” Caron was filming with Cary Grant, Charles Boyer, René Clément; Beatty insisted she must also work with him. Eventually, he optioned Bonnie and Clyde for their project together—then told Caron he had decided she was “too old” for it.

It ended their relationship. “But I became friends with Joan Collins and Natalie Wood, his exes. We three certainly had some laughs at Warren’s expense!”

As the 1990s loomed, there were fewer laughs—and fewer roles. Caron decided to renovate and run her own auberge in Burgundy. Although successful, the project exhausted her and contributed to a new struggle, with alcohol. (The auberge is now up for sale.)

Caron’s recovery, she said, brought many lessons. “My whole life was dogged by the feeling ‘I could have done that better.’ Now I know that came from my mother. There are so many mothers like that! ‘Very nice, darling! But so-and-so does it better.’ In my case, ‘so-and-so’ was always Audrey Hepburn.”

Photo: Steve Sampson.

Caron has kept making movies: Funny Bones, Damage, Chocolat, Le Divorce. A 2006 role on Law & Order SVU won her a Best Actress Grammy, and she just received a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame. Her book, however, took critics by surprise—Thank Heaven is a fascinating read, with surprising characters such as Christopher Isherwood, Aldous Huxley and Rudolf Nureyev. There was no need, said the actress, for the usual ghostwriter, “because I remember tiny things very vividly. The way Truffaut rolled up a sleeve to hold his cigarettes or the socks David Hockney wore to meet Jean Renoir. Whenever emotion is involved, things stay locked inside me.”

Why choose to write in English? There was a pause. “That may seem odd when I am so clearly a product of Paris. But I feel safe in English. In England, in America, I know I am loved! Here in France I have my Legion d’honneur, I have my film festivals.”

“But do they really love me?” She gives a Parisian shrug. “They haven’t yet proved it!”

From February 15 to 20, Leslie Caron will appear at the Théâtre du Châtelet in a special presentation of Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music, with Greta Scacchi and Lambert Wilson.

Upcoming Events at the Village Voice Bookstore

Thursday, January 21
Lorraine Liscio speaks about her book Paris and Her Remarkable Women.

Thursday, January 28
Diane Johnson, author of Le Divorce, Le Mariage and L’Affaire, discusses the work of Leonard Michaels and its translation.

Looking for More Events?

Check out these English-language bookstores.

Abbey Bookshop, la Librairie Canadienne
29, rue de la Parcheminerie, in the 5th Arrondissement, near St.-Michel or
Cluny La Sorbonne metro stops. Mon–Sat, 10 a.m.–1 p.m.

Anglo-American and Canadian books; large secondhand section.

Galignani
224, rue de Rivoli, in the 1st, near the Tuileries metro stop.
Mon–Sat, 10  a.m.–7 p.m.

The first English-language bookstore in Europe; impressive selections in all the arts.

Shakespeare & Co.
37, rue de la Bûcherie, in the 5th, near the Maubert-Mutualité metro stop.
Mon–Sat, 10 a.m.–11 p.m.; Sun, 11 a.m.–11 p.m.

The other famous English-language bookstore in Paris. From June 18 to 20, it will hold its own literary festival, Storytelling, Politics and the Imagination.

W.H. Smith
248, rue de Rivoli, in the 1st, near the Concorde metro stop.
Mon–Sat, 9 a.m.–7:30 p.m.; Sun, 1–7:30 p.m.

The Paris branch of the UK bookseller, popular with both Brits and Americans.

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