Zizi Jeanmaire: Ballet and cabaret star who dazzled audiences from the music halls of Paris to Hollywood

At a photoshoot in Paris, 1950: Rex
At a photoshoot in Paris, 1950: Rex

Zizi Jeanmaire was an exquisite, modernist ballet dancer who partnered such ballet greats as Rudolf Nureyev and Mikhail Baryshnikov and made Hollywood films with Bing Crosby (Anything Goes, 1956) and Danny Kaye (Hans Christian Andersen, 1952). But she was best known as a flamboyant, seductive cabaret singer and dancer in the vibrant music halls of her native Paris in the postwar years.

The dancer, who died on 17 July at 96, was one of France’s best-loved artistes. Her stage appearances in London and the United States in 1949 transformed her into a global star.

She played the title role in the ballet Carmen and was choreographed by Roland Petit, whom she later married and who played the lead male role as part of their troupe Les Ballets de Paris. On Broadway, the show ran for more than 115 performances.

Although the ballet was based on Bizet’s famous opera, in which Carmen is a hot-tempered, long-haired Spanish factory worker, Petit had Jeanmaire crop her hair, and he added an eroticised dance scene that won critical acclaim. Petit and Jeanmaire had brought a fresh sexiness to traditional ballet.

New York World-Telegram music critic Louis Biancolli wrote that Jeanmaire’s Carmen “is one of the most amazing portrayals of the modern stage. Using almost strictly classical technique, abetted by a shrewd sense of subtly graded pantomime, she manages to depict the whole tantalising personality of Don Jose’s femme fatale.”

Life magazine ran a story that same year on the new European ballet movement from France and Britain, including seven photographs of Petit and Jeanmaire in Carmen, with Jeanmaire demonstrating extraordinary physical skills.

That led to Hollywood producer Howard Hughes giving Jeanmaire a movie contract. He “loaned” her to movie mogul Samuel Goldwyn, who cast her as a ballet dancer in Hans Christian Andersen when his first choice – the British actor and dancer Moira Shearer – was unavailable.

Four years later, she starred in the 1956 movie revival of Cole Porter’s Broadway blockbuster Anything Goes, alongside Crosby. Many critics felt there was a lack of chemistry between Crosby and Jeanmaire, perhaps because her husband was usually on set as choreographer. Petit had little right to be jealous of his wife. He had well-publicised affairs with Rita Hayworth and Elizabeth Taylor during his Hollywood stays.

From the 1950s through the 1960s, Jeanmaire and Petit were probably the most photographed and sought-after culture couple in Paris as the city not just emerged but exploded out of the devastation of the war and the Nazi occupation. One of their closest friends was the fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent, who created many of Jeanmaire’s dazzling stage outfits. In the United States, they were regularly in the company of the artist Andy Warhol.

Jeanmaire’s name became immortalised in many songs. One was 1969’s massive hit “Where Do You Go To (My Lovely)” by the British singer-songwriter Peter Sarstedt. It wasn’t about Jeanmaire, but its opening lines were: “You talk like Marlene Dietrich, and you dance like Zizi Jeanmaire.”

Jeanmaire’s signature song, dance and act became “Mon Truc en Plumes”, in which, wearing her black corset, stockings and high heels, she, sometimes with the help of a male dancer, fluttered ostrich feathers, usually white or pink, at her lower back. The safest translation of the song is “My thing in feathers”. But on the streets of Paris, no one had any doubt about its erotic connotation: “My thing in feathers, it makes you dream, but it’s sacred, you can’t touch it, my thing in feathers.”

Renee Marcelle Jeanmaire was born in Paris on 29 April 1924, the only child of Swiss parents; her father was a self-made businessperson in the chromium industry. The nickname Zizi is said to have come from the way she used to say “mon Zizi” instead of “mon Jesus” (my Jesus). It was many years later, when she was in Hollywood and still using the name Renee, that Goldwyn suggested she use “Zizi” because it was catchy.

She fell in love with ballet while at school. At nine, she persuaded her parents to let her enrol in the ballet school of the Opera de Paris, where she first met Petit, a fellow student. Their friendship, eventual marriage, cooperation and love would last 78 years until the choreographer’s death in 2011.

Survivors include their daughter, Valentine, who said Jeanmaire died at her home in Tolochenaz, overlooking Lake Geneva in Switzerland, of undisclosed causes.

Jeanmaire was 15 when the Second World War broke out and 16 when the Nazis invaded France and occupied Paris. Although it was often dangerous to come and go, she and Petit continued to practice and sometimes perform at the subdued Opera de Paris throughout the war.

After the war, Petit had an affair with the British prima ballerina Margot Fonteyn. Jeanmaire became aware of it and gave Petit an ultimatum that said, more or less, “create me a ballet, or I’m out of here”, according to The Daily Telegraph. He did, and Carmen was the result. Following its worldwide success, they married in 1954.

The next year, Jeanmaire was again upset when her husband was asked to choreograph a Hollywood musical, Daddy Long Legs, starring Fred Astaire. Instead of selecting his new wife, Petit persuaded Astaire and the studio to pick the French actor and dancer Leslie Caron – then at the peak of her fame – for the role opposite Astaire.

Jeanmaire began focusing on cabaret and in 1956 appeared in the film Folies-Bergere. She had worked on refining her voice, which was husky if not musically dazzling, and the atmosphere of Paris music halls brought out her wit and sensuality. She continued in cabaret well into her seventies and, as a singer, recorded more than 30 albums.

Before his death in 1959, the great French poet, singer, author and songwriter Boris Vian – who wrote the globally renowned pacifist song “Le Deserteur” – said of Ms Jeanmaire: “Zizi had eyes which would empty a Trappist monks’ convent in five minutes, and a voice that could only be made in Paris.”

Zizi Jeanmaire, ballet dancer, born 29 April 1924, died 17 July 2020

© The Washington Post

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