Born Maurice Auguste Chevalier, September 12, 1888, in Paris, France; died of heart failure January 1, 1972, in Paris; son of Victor Charles (a house painter) and Josephine (a lacemaker) Chevalier; married Yvonne Vallee (an actress and singer), October 10, 1927 (divorced, 1935). Singer, comedian, and actor, 1901-72. Toured the provinces of France and small theaters in Paris, 1901-09; joined the Folies-Bergere, 1909, and became partner to the revue's star, Mistinguett, 1910. Made English-speaking debut in London in revue Hullo, America, 1919. Star of numerous musical comedies and revues in France and England, 1919-27. Military service: French Army, 1913-16; received Croix de Guerre, 1917. Signed with Paramount Pictures, 1928, and appeared in films Innocents of Paris, 1929; The Love Parade, 1929; The Playboy of Paris, 1930; The Smiling Lieutenant, 1931; Love Me Tonight, 1932; and The Way to Love, 1933. Also appeared in films The Merry Widow, MGM, 1934; Folies-Bergere, United Artists, 1935; Love in the Afternoon, 1957; Gigi, 1958; Can-Can, 1960; and Fanny, 1961. Appeared in television specials and on talk and comedy-variety shows, including The Maurice Chevalier Show, 1955, and The World of Maurice Chevalier, 1963, both on NBC.
Even two decades after his death, Maurice Chevalier reigns as the most popular entertainer France has produced in the twentieth century. Through films, television, and especially live revues, the jaunty Chevalier charmed audiences for 70 years. He managed to age gracefully and slide without effort from romantic leading man roles to the part of a charming, witty grandfather--all with a voice one New York Times reporter deemed "no great shakes."
Arthur Cooper described Chevalier in a Newsweek obituary: "As effervescent as vintage champagne, as durable as the Eiffel Tower (which he predated by one year), he was a sophisticated Gallic charmer who easily lived up to his billing as The Most Popular Frenchman in the World. In movies, on television and, above all, on stage, his elegantly relaxed style conjured up memories of a simpler time, of liveried attendants and horse-drawn carriages parked along the Champs-Elysees."
That burnished and elegant persona, however, was quite at odds with Chevalier's upbringing. The ninth child of an itinerant house painter, he was born in 1888 in the Menilmontant section of Paris. His father was a heavy drinker who abused the family before deserting entirely when Maurice was eight. The singer's mother--whom he adored--had to support her children as best she could by making lace. Chevalier even spent some time in a government-run almshouse while his mother was too ill to work.
Chevalier left school at the age of ten, determined to be an acrobat. He apprenticed at the metal-engraving company where his brother worked, but all of his spare time was spent practicing and planning routines. He was given an audition at the Cirque d'Hiver, but during a rehearsal he slipped and fell. After that his mother decreed that he would have to find suitable employment in a "safe" trade.
He drifted through a succession of jobs, including that of carpenter and store clerk, but still yearned for the stage. Finally, he decided to be a singer. At the tender age of 12 he persuaded a cafe owner to allow him to sing on Amateur Night; his debut was a disaster--he stood stiffly in front of the crowd and sang off-key--and he was laughed off the stage. With grim determination he mastered his nerves and returned, honing an act that played upon his extreme youth.
Chevalier became a professional performer in December of 1901, when he played a week's engagement at the Casino de Tourelles, billed as "Little Chevalier, miniature comic." The routine included clownish makeup and some obscene gestures and language; it was a hit with the music-hall clientele, but more fashionable audiences found it revolting. Gradually, as he grew into a slender and handsome young man, Chevalier refined his style. As Cooper put it, "he transformed himself from a titi-- boulevard smart aleck--into a suave seducteur."
At 21 Chevalier was hired by France's premier revue, the Folies-Bergere. He signed a three-year contract and by his second year was earning top billing as partner to the famous and beautiful Mistinguett. The two performers sang romantic love ballads onstage and were linked romantically offstage as well; Chevalier's career was launched.
In 1913 Chevalier was drafted and the next year found himself on the front lines when Germany invaded France at the start of World War I. He suffered a serious shrapnel wound to the lung at Cutry and was captured and sent to Alten Grabow, a prisoner-of-war camp. He spent 26 months in the camp, during which time he learned English from a fellow prisoner. Released in 1916, he returned to the stage, and eventually to the Folies-Bergere.
Chevalier decided to become a solo performer in 1919, after years spent in the shadow of Mistinguett. During a short engagement in London he noticed a dapper Englishman in formal dress with a straw hat on his head. The singer told the New York Times: "He looked so smart that I thought, 'I do not need to look farther. There is my hat. It's a man's hat. It's a gay hat. It's the hat to go with a tuxedo.' From that moment I was never without a straw boater if I could help it, even when those hats went out of fashion."
With his trademark straw hat and his half-singing, half-talking vocal delivery, Chevalier took France, and then America, by storm. He told the New York Times: "Thank God, it was my good luck not to have any voice. If I had, I would have tried to be a singer who sings ballads in a voice like a velvet fog, but since I am barely able to half-talk and half-sing a song, it made me look for something to make me different from a hundred other crooners who are neither good nor bad. If I had any voice, I would have been content to rest on my voice and learn nothing else. Since I had no voice, I had to find something that would hold the interest of the public."
Chevalier was exaggerating, of course, but he did develop a delightful, affably seductive persona that proved popular through a string of Paramount movies in the early 1930s. His leading ladies in Hollywood included Jeanette MacDonald in Love Me Tonight, Norma Shearer in The Merry Widow, and Claudette Colbert in The Smiling Lieutenant. At the height of the Great Depression Chevalier was earning $20,000 a week as a contract player with Paramount. He moved to MGM in 1935, but no amount of money or success could persuade him to remain in Hollywood after a dispute with MGM production chief Irving Thalberg. Chevalier returned to Paris--to the live stage--and did not make another movie in America for more than a dozen years.
During World War II Chevalier kept a low profile, principally because his companion, Nita Raya, was Jewish. Accusations of collaboration with the Nazi occupation, leveled at him during the war, were quickly withdrawn afterwards and his popularity continued undiminished. When he returned to American films in the 1950s, Chevalier projected a new image--that of the gracefully aging bon vivant, a man of the world who could offer sage advice to distraught young lovers. With his 1958 rendition of "Thank Heaven for Little Girls" in MGM's Gigi, Chevalier effectively stole that big-budget musical from its stars. He was awarded an honorary Academy Award the following year.
Although he starred in several television specials and appeared on numerous other shows, Chevalier always felt most comfortable in front of a live audience. In his later years he traveled extensively, bringing his one-man show to audiences on every continent. "Maurice knew the secret of aging gracefully," Cooper wrote. "He seemed really to mean it when he sang 'I'm Glad I'm Not Young Any More.' He had a voice like a broken promise; indeed, the tireless troubadour freely admitted that 'I walk tightrope on the mere thread of a voice.'"
Chevalier died of heart failure on the first day of 1972. Throughout his life he had battled depression, finding strength in the adoration he earned from audiences. "I believe in the rosy side of life," he once told the New York Times. "I know that life has many, many dark sides for everybody. It has been for me at many moments of my life. But I believe in bringing to the people the encouragement of living, and I think I am lasting so long in the interest of the people through something that comes out of my personality and my work, which is to be sort of a sunshine person, see."
by Anne Janette Johnson
Maurice Chevalier's Career
Maurice Chevalier's Awards
Member of Legion d'Honneur (France), 1938; member of Order of Leopold (Belgium), 1943; Ordre Merite National (France), 1964; special "Oscar" from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, 1959.
- The Man in the Straw Hat (autobiography), 1949.
- With Love (autobiography), 1960.
- I Remember It Well (memoirs), 1970.
- Newsweek, January 10, 1972.
- New York Times, January 2, 1972.