In September 1965, Leslie Caron flew from Hollywood — where she was living in extravagant style with her then lover Warren Beatty — to her home-town of Paris to play a French Resistance fighter in René Clément’s film, Is Paris Burning?
Her “grand scene” took place at Drancy, site of the Second World War transit camp from where French Jews were deported. Among the extras were real survivors whose tattooed arms were bared for the camera. As Caron relates in her just-published autobiography: “I play it only once but it takes me a week to recover from the emotional shock of the scene.”
At the time of the actual Drancy expulsions, Caron was an 11-year-old living in the occupied French capital, unaware of the hideous events nearby. She accepts that many Parisians went along with the Nazis’ actions. “Antisemitism came naturally to a lot of people in France, especially within ‘better’ society’,” she says. “I attribute this to envy. Many intelligent Jews were successful bankers. Some were even ennobled. It seemed that Jews were clever in business and, over the years, the conviction grew that ‘they are going faster than us’.
“There was ambient antisemitism in my family. The deportations were never discussed at home. The round-up at Vel d’hiv [a cycling stadium where 13,000 Parisian Jews were assembled in July 1942 to be delivered to the death camps] must have shocked the normal French citizen. Afterwards, we never saw anyone wearing the yellow star. My mother and father must have talked of it but I never heard about it until after the war.
“I knew no Jewish children when I was growing up. I was in Catholic schools and convents. The only Jewish person I knew was Rose, the seamstress who used to stay with us to make our clothes, whom I dearly loved. Suddenly, she didn’t appear any more and I asked my parents: ‘Where is Rose?’ My father said: ‘Oh, she is Jewish, you know, and has found herself in trouble.’ That was it.”
Caron’s lack of familiarity with Jews was not to last. Once Gene Kelly had plucked her from the Ballets des Champs-Elysees to dance opposite him to George Gershwin’s music in the film An American in Paris, the gifted teenage ballerina was on course for Hollywood. And there, she recalls, “being Jewish was everything. The situation was reversed. I felt one of the minority and hoped for acceptance by the Jewish community. My eyes were opened to those remarkable people — creative, with a sense of survival and of the importance of the family unit, which was sadly lacking in my upbringing. From the way some French people spoke about Jews, you’d think they had tails. And I did expect them to be hard bosses. But I didn’t find that at all. They were gentle and kind.”
She even praises the notorious moguls. “Louis B Mayer? Every girl could wrap him around her finger. What they loved most was to talk about their daughters, their wives, their sons’ successes. They were more human than the people from where I had come.”
In a career encompassing several decades, the star of Gigi, Lili, and many others films right up to more recent appearances in Chocolat and Le Divorce has mixed in many Jewish circles. Friends and colleagues have included Stanley Donen, Ira Gershwin, Oscar Levant, and, in a most chilling connection, Roman Polanski.
Forty years ago, Caron and her husband, film producer Michael Laughlin, were looking for a place to live in Hollywood. They settled on a cottage in Cielo Drive, the former home of Doris Day’s son, musician Terry Melcher. But, when she and Michael arrived at the property expecting to snap it up, they found Roman Polanski on the doorstep. He told them: “You’re 24 hours too late. Sharon and I moved in yesterday.”
“Sharon” was Polanski’s wife, actress Sharon Tate. Shortly after this encounter, the heavily pregnant Tate and four others were brutally killed at the cottage. The killers were female acolytes of the insane, would-be rock star, Charles Manson. “To begin with,” Caron recalls, “the anger of Manson was directed against whoever lived in that house. Manson had gone there when it still belonged to Terry Melcher asking Terry to record him. Terry, who could be arrogant, threw him out. Manson carried this grudge and gave orders to his girl followers to murder whoever was in the house.” It could easily have been Caron.
The killing “had nothing to do with poor Sharon Tate’s lifestyle”, she adds, to refute the malicious gossip that lingered after the drug-induced slaughter. “And the only thing you could reproach Roman for was his not being there with his seven-months pregnant wife. But that’s not unusual in our profession. The shock was enormous. Imagine, there’s a little village and there’s a murder of that monstrosity.”
But, this darkest of interludes apart, Hollywood was the most sociable of villages in Caron’s time there. She recalls giving a party for Barbra Streisand where, “without thinking, I prepared… a stuffed pig. The head was not there and Barbra asked: ‘That’s not a pig is it?’ and I realised what I had done. She ate all the other things.”
“I would like to have a private life now,” says Caron, but adds: “I feel I haven’t done enough theatre. I don’t know if it’s too late.” Hardly — she is about to play in A Little Night Music, in her home-town. So, for Gershwin, now read Sondheim. Back where it all began, with a (Jewish) American in Paris.