Every Frenchman Has One
Olivia de Havilland
Crown Archetype (2016 reissue)
What does every Frenchman have? I wouldn't dream of spoiling the surprise for you. Suffice to say, it isn't as sexy as you might think.
In reading the recent reissue of Olivia de Havilland's 1961 memoir of adjusting to life in France, I didn't learn anything about the interior life of Academy Award-winning actress, but I enjoyed the light-hearted fun of this breezy read. It's a series of unconnected vignettes about her years in mid-century France, covering, among other things, her social life, learning the language, hairdressing and the less predictable topics of liver care and the bladder capacity of the French.
The chapters float by as if buoyed on a sea of froth. de Havilland captures the essence of her new culture with an eye for detail, but always with a humorous air. It is short, and clever. You could gobble up this book in one sitting if you got caught in its spell.
de Havilland moved to Paris, France in the 1950s for love. Freshly divorced at the Cannes Film Festival, she had met, and connected with journalist and Paris Match editor Pierre Galante there, and when the French government deemed she had remained unattached for a sufficient period, the pair married and took up residence with her three-year-old son from her previous marriage to writer Marcus Goodrich. This new union wouldn't last, but the pair would remain friends until Galante's death and de Havilland would make her permanent home in Paris.
The action takes place after de Havilland's Hollywood heyday and a few years before her entertaining late career trio of The Light in the Piazza (1962), Lady in a Cage (1964) and Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964). She doesn't speak much of her career, though there are a few mentions, including references to Not as a Stranger (1955) and The Proud Rebel (1958).
While she doesn't completely ignore her career, de Havilland's focus is on her life away from the camera. Her problems are definitely of the privileged white lady variety. She becomes faint when the painters mix up the color combo for the façade of her house, and she devotes much attention to the horrors of instructing French workers in the craft of making an American-style dishwashing station. You also hear of her humiliation in not knowing how to properly address the Comtesse de Paris and the headache-inducing problems of understanding fancy French dinner invitations.
It's an interesting peek into a world of wealth and prestige, in which an American movie star can be happily distraught by the cosmetic problems of life. Of course it is a fantasy, spotlighting the glitz while discarding the grime, but it is a most entertaining one.