Saturday 28 January 2012

The story of Georges Brassens and his Jeanne


George Brassens was born on the 22 October 1921, in the town of Sète, a town in southern France near Montpellier.

Brassens grew up in the family home with his mother, Elvira Dagrosa, and his father, Jean-Louis.  Also in the house was Georges’ half-sister, Simone, who was the daughter of his mother, Elvira, and her first husband who had been killed in the World War I. Their grandfather, Jules, also lived with them. He was the father of Georges’s Dad.

Georges’ mother came originally from southern Italy and was a devout Roman Catholic. In contrast, his father was an easy-going, generous, open-minded, anticlerical man. Brassens grew up between these two starkly contrasting personalities. Nonetheless,  the family was all united by one thing - their love for music. His mother, whom Brassens labelled a “militante de la chanson”, and Simone and grandpa Jules, were always singing.
Brassens never lost his love for his native town.  One of his songs describes how much he enjoyed, later in life, returning to sail there with his close band of pals. See Les Copains d'abord

Another song declares his wish to be buried on the shore there,so that he will be able to spend eternity as a summer holiday in Sète. See Supplique pour etre enterre a la plage de Sete


In 1939, shortly before he turned eighteen, Georges Brassens found himself on the wrong side of the law. He had started going around with a gang of boys who had not too much respect for authority. They neglected their studies and skipped school. Two songs which Brassens wrote, set in his teenage years - "Il suffit de passer le pont" and "La Premiere Fille" - are to most of us, just charming poems about the first experience of love in the springtime of life.  However, in the repressive mores of the 1930s, they give evidence of a boy, who was ready to break this rigid social and religious code in the very sensitive and explosive matter of sexuality. 

Some of the activities of Georges and his undesirable friends began to give grounds for really serious concern. The youths became secretly involved in petty crime and pilfered small items that they could sell, raising enough money to buy records, among other things.. Their victims were mainly  members of their own families. Georges helped himself to a ring and bracelet, belonging to his half-sister. When some of the stolen property was recognised in a local shop window, the police tracked down the culprits. They were taken to court and a number of boys were sent to prison. With the support of his father, Georges got away with a one year sentence on remand. In his song,”L’auvergnat”, he talks of one sole person who looked on him with compassion when the police took him away and this could have been his father.

Although some commentators dismiss Brassens’ misdemeanour as no more than the trivial offence of an adolescent, there is no doubt that it caused a major crisis in the lives of the Brassens family, Georges was expelled from school and when he went out in public he was painfully aware of the strong disapproval on the part of the respectable people in his hometown of Sète. It is probable that the trauma of these events, at this formative stage, lingered with him for the rest of his life. He certainly had a permanent resentment of censorious middle class people, whom he characterised as “croquants” and “croquantes”.

Brassens’ first period of refuge – In Aunt Antoinette’s house Feb 1940- March 1943
Brassens decided to move to Paris in February 1940, even though France, at this time, was under threat of German invasion. His Aunt Antoinette Dagrossa, his mother’s sister, who ran a family boarding house at 173 rue d’Alésia, in the 14th arrondissement, had offered him accommodation.

On arrival in Paris, he got himself a job in the Renault car factory. Two months later, in May 1940, the factory was bombed and in the same month the German army entered France followed by the fall of Paris on the fourteenth of June. Brassens returned to Sète in the summer of 1940, but after three months, he returned to occupied Paris.

For the next three years, Georges Brassens had no employment but lived off the hospitality of his aunt. In his song “L’Auvergnat”, Brassens pays tribute to the hostess who fed him when he had no-one else to turn to. This is often seen as referring to his stay with Jeanne Planche, but in view of the hospitality which Aunt Antoinette showed to him over this long period, it is possible that it was his aunt whom he had first in mind.   Brassens paid glowing tributes to the warmth of heart and generosity of the Aunt who acted as his "hostess". He admired also her determination and her courage, as she had broken away from an unhappy marriage in Sète and had established an independent life for herself in Paris, at a time when social convention prohibited such a way-out for an unhappy wife. The idle life that she allowed him gave him the opportunity to spend his days in the public library, discovering authors, some of whom would appear later in his songs. He also was writing, publishing his first collection of poems in 1942:, ‘Des coups d’épées dans l’eau’ , soon followed by ‘A la venvole’. Also in these years he had time to improve his musical skills, teaching himself to play his aunt’s old piano.

In March 1943, this easy period in his life ended abruptly, when Brassens lost his freedom. He was requisitioned for the Service de Travail Obligatoire and was forced to go to a camp in Basdorf, Germany to work for the German war effort.

Brassens’ second period of refuge - in Jeanne’s house March 1944 – August 1944
After a year, Brassens was successful in getting a pass for ten days home leave. Predictably, once back in Paris, he did a runner to avoid returning to Germany. In fact he did not run far away from his Aunt’s house. It was Jeanne Planche and her husband, Marcel, who offered to hide him and look after him, as long as necessary, in their cramped little house in a narrow cul de sac - l'impasse Florimont in the 14th arrondissement.

Jeanne was Aunt Antoinette’s dressmaker and Brassens had got to know her through her regular visits. Brassens tells us that, in the course of the years of his stay there, the two of them became good friends, in spite of their thirty year age gap, because they found that they had a lot in common. In fact they became much more than good friends and a passionate love affair developed.

There is an intimate song of Brassens:"La fille à cent sous", which perhaps gives a picture of the emotional evening, when Georges and Jeanne first made love.

 The T.V biographies in 2011 revealed an example of the amorous messages that they exchanged. - Brassens tells us in his song, “A l’ombre des maris (1972)”, that one day he discovered that a married woman offered love more exquisite than any other:
En ce qui me concerne, ayant un jour compris
Qu’une femme adultère est plus qu’une autre exquise
Je cherche mon bonheur à l’ombre des maris

The facts of his biography allow us to speculate with whom he had enjoyed this memorable moment, celebrated in this poem, and Jeanne’s name comes immediately to mind.

Photos taken in these early years help to explain Jeanne’s charms. 
Her hair had not yet turned grey and we see an attractive woman with a happy personality.

Even in later years when she showed all the signs of her age commentators still refer to her beauty some of which must have been the reflection of her good nature which never left her. This photo of Jeanne and Georges together suggests the ease of their relationship and their pleasure in each other’s company.

Brassens tells us that when he was seeking refuge after going absent without leave, it was a joint offer that he received from Jeanne and her husband, Marcel. We can imagine, however that Jeanne was the moving force, not only because of her personal interest in the young man, but also because it was Jeanne, the strongest character, who always made the decisions. Brassens in the same letter, goes on to praise the generosity of the couple in undertaking to feed an extra person from the ration coupons for two that they were allocated. He also praises their courage in taking the risk of concealing an escapee from a German work camp. These acknowledgements serve to bring out the irony of the situation -that the gesture on Marcel’s part was in protection of a young man who was secretly sleeping with his wife. A commentator in a T.V.documentary (2011) about Brassens tells us that he felt very bad conscience about deceiving Marcel. However, Pierre Onténiente, Brassens’ close friend, who was, in later years, his right-hand man and his private secretary, explained that Jeanne’s husband was either indifferent or unaware, as he was in the habit of starting to get drunk from eight in the morning.  Brassens expressed his gratitude to him in his song of 1955 "Chanson pour l'auvergnat"the nickname apparently for Jeanne's husband.

Brassens’ forced confinement in Jeanne’s house lasted from March 1944 until August 1944. He had the consolation of Jeanne’s love and in this reclusion he continued to write poems and songs. His only musical instrument was a low piece of furniture which he used as a drum, beating out the rhythms. Nevertheless the tensions of these months should not be understated. The strain of this experience can be gauged by the fact that late in his life Brassens recalled to an acquaintance from his early days in Paris, who had just written to him (See Appendix below), that he had endured “this state of siege” for a year and three months. In fact the time that he was shut away totalled five months. The tally in Brassens’ mind no doubt reflected the length of those days when, deprived indefinitely of his liberty, he lived in constant suspense of the possibility of discovery by the Vichy police or the Gestapo, with the terrible consequences that this would imply, not only for him but for Jeanne and Marcel.

Brassens’ extended stay in the Impasse Florimont – 1944 – 1966
In the same letter to a correspondent, Brassens says that it was quite natural that he stayed on at Jeanne’s house in the Impasse Florimont after Paris was liberated and he was able to come out of hiding:
Mais même après la Libération, j'ai tout naturellement choisi de demeurer chez Jeanne, malgré l'inconfort notable des lieux, sans électricité, sans eau courante, sans tout-à-l'égout
It would surprise most people that he chose to go on living there for the very reasons that he mentions. The house was without electricity, running water and proper sanitation. It was in fact a slum and Jeanne made matters worse by the animals that she accumulated there – living side by side in her yard were cats, dogs, hens and Jeanne’s special duck that Brassens made famous in his song. The soft hearted Jeanne could not turn away any strays and she poured out on them the love that she would have lavished on her children, if fate had been kind enough to grant her any. Her boarder, Georges Brassens had an equal attachment to her cats.

If it is a surprise that Brassens chose to live on in these conditions and it is a further surprise how long he lived on there. In fact, he stayed in the run-down cul-de sac, close to Jeanne for another twenty years, even after he had become rich and internationally famous.  The personality of Jeanne must surely have been the major factor in this attachment.  In my interpretation of Brassens' song, "La Femme d'Hector", she is the partner on whom he can rely absolutely throughout the years, who is, in the bargain, a woman of incomparable qualities.

Brassens explained in a radio interview that he stayed on there because he felt comfortable. In the letter to his acquaintance of time past, he said that by remaining there he was able to keep his little routines, because the local residents respected what he termed the private territory of his daily life. There, he was near to his friends him, including those, who had just returned from the German labour, among whom his close friend, Pierre Onténiente. With a number of these friends he attempted to launch an anarchist movement.

The most important person in this company was Jeanne, who gave him great love and support. A less romantic view of this appeared in the recent T.V. documentary on his life. This pointed out that for ten years Jeanne kept Georges who had no income and who made little effort to find some kind of job which would at least allow him to pay his keep. Unkind people could say that throughout all these years, he was Jeanne’s kept man.

From an artistic point of view it was vital that Jeanne gave him the encouragement to persevere in his composition and to go on trying to get his songs played. Brassens was lacking in confidence and experienced nervousness and panic when he had to perform in public (a nervousness which is still evident in his heavy perspiration sometimes as he performs in his later years).continuing his study of poetry and was working on his songs. Jeanne gave him vital encouragement and bought him a guitar (on the death of his Aunt Antoinette in July 1946, he inherited her piano). They battled on for over five years in the face of refusals and disappointments and all the while, he did not earn a penny.
The turning point came in in March 1951, when the famous French singer Patachou sang his songs at her cabaret (below left)and called the nervous young man with a big moustache up on stage to sing. He was greeted with acclaim.

Hear Brassens' first song composition and record, when in 1952, he and Patachou, both on the brink of their dazzling careers sang in duet the tale of his debt to his parents' unfailing love and his regret for his adolescent excesses.  Please click on "Maman Papa"

It was through Patachou that Brassens had met the bass player, Pierre Nicolas.  He was an accomplished musician, who would become his accompanist and give him the solid support he needed to perform in public, as Brassens' nervousness on stage never left him.

Below Right - In later years, Brassens rehearsing with Pierre Nicolas.

From 1952 onwards, Brassens was earning enough not only to pay his rent and his keep but to make improvements in Jeanne’s home, installing electricity and running water.

In 1955, he bought Jeanne and Marcel Planche’s home for them and also the neighbouring house as an extension for their house, into which he himself was able to move. In his private cine-films, we see Jeanne in the smart clothes that Brassens was now able to buy her, accompanied by Marcel – and dog- on an outing to the Bois de Boulogne, to where they were driven in a fine car.

L’Impasse Florimont continued to be Brassens’ home, although he was absent for increasing periods of time as his successful career involved him in tours both within France and abroad.  In 1960, around the time when Jeanne turned seventy, Brassens wrote the touching song:"Jeanne" to celebrate the infinite warmth and kindliness of her nature.  In their personal cine-films, we see Brassens constantly putting his arms around her and his hands upon her, getting in return more than once a flirtatious glance - the body language of two people, whose feelings of intimacy had not diminished.

This situation, strange in many ways,  finally ended in 1966.

On the 7th May of the previous year Marcel Planche had died. On the 2th May 1966, to the dismay of Brassens, Jeanne married again at the age of 75. Her new husband was only 37 years old. In a show of disapproval, Brassens moved out of Jeanne’s house. (See the postscript below)

On the topic of fidelity, It has to be said that from as early as 1945 Brassens had conducted clandestine love affairs, while living with Jeanne. He would seek to smuggle the women into his room secretly so as not to arouse Jeanne’s jealous anger. The TV biographies of 2011, tell how the gentle natured Jeanne became very angry when she learnt of his relationships with other women.

Jeanne’s new marriage was to prove short-lived. Just two years later, she was taken ill and underwent a gall-bladder operation, from which she failed to recover. She died on the 24th October 1968 and Georges Brassens was at her bedside.
The photo on the left looks back to the days when Georges first met Jeanne.

As we grow older we necessarily live in the continuity of the full span of our lives. When Brassens looked at Jeanne that last time, no doubt he saw also the bright-eyed woman, younger than her years, whose first warm embrace of illicit love, at number 173 rue d’Alésia, had introduced him to a deep and enduring relationship. Jeanne’s death at the age of 77 greatly affected Brassens.

Brassens died of cancer in 1981, in Saint-Gély-du-Fesc. He had suffered health problems for many years, as is evident in a number of videos on this blog.  He was laid to rest in accordance with his wishes (almost!) at the  Cimetière le Py in Sète.

After Brassens finally moved out of the Impasse Florimont in 1966, following Jeanne’s remarriage he bought a more modern apartment. However he did not find this style of living to his taste and he sold up three years later to buy a house in the 15th arrondissement. In the letter to a personal correspondent, quoted several times above in this biography, he explained that, after his temporary removal, he had no intention of leaving the district of Paris where he felt at ease and which was now his permanent home. We note the continuing pull of this neighbourhood where he had lived with Jeanne.


The following is the letter, which I have mentioned several times in the piece above.  Brassens wrote it in reply to the reminiscences of an acquaintance from his early days in Paris. Brassens wrote an appreciative letter that is full of biographical insights:

Cher Voisin, Bonjour,
Je trouve bien émouvant que vous évoquiez, et sur un ton si chaleureusement intimiste, cette époque où je pouvais flâner nonchalamment dans mon quartier du 14e arrondissement. Et de penser que nous nous sommes croisés, entre la rue Didot et la rue de Vanves, que nous aurions pu faire un bout de conversation place du lieutenant Piobetta, face à cette caserne de pompiers, à quatre pas de ma maison.

Car effectivement c'est bien là que j'ai habité, impasse Florimont, au no9, devenu depuis le no7, pendant 22 ans. Lorsqu'à 18 ans, en février 1940, j'ai quitté ma ville natale de Sète pour monter à Paris, il n'y avait qu'un seul point de chute possible. Ma tante, Antoinette Dagrossa, soeur de ma mère, possédait une pension de famille au 173, rue d'Alésia. Déjà à l'occasion de vacances ou de l'Exposition Universelle, tous les membres de la famille qui passaient à Paris étaient inévitablement logés chez cette tante chaleureuse, restée très attachée à sa soeur et à la famille. Moi-même, lors de deux précédents voyages dans la capitale, j'avais pu apprécier la générosité mais aussi la rigueur et la détermination de cette femme de tête. Pour fuir un mariage inconfortable, elle avait choisi de quitter Sète et de se reconstruire une vie marquée par l'autonomie, ce qui était très courageux dans le contexte de l'époque et était de nature à soulever mon estime. J'étais d'autant plus heureux d'habiter chez elle que j'avais libre accès à un piano d'une tenue convenable, sur lequel, grâce à des méthodes dénichées aux Puces de Vanves, j'ai pu combler le gouffre de mon ignorance musicale.

J'ai habité rue d'Alésia durant trois années et c'est pendant cette période que j'ai fait la connaissance de Jeanne Planche, couturière attitrée de tante Antoinette, devenue son amie au fil des années. Bien que 30 ans d'âge nous séparaient, des affinités multiples tissaient entre nous des liens certains.
En mars 1943, je fus contraint au S.T.O., le service du travail obligatoire. Après un an, les Allemands accordèrent parcimonieusement des permissions. Très peu retournèrent au camp. Pour ma part, il n'était pas question que je me réinstalle chez Antoinette, où j'aurais été vite repris et aurais dangereusement compromis mon hôtesse.
C'est alors que Jeanne et son mari Marcel offrirent de m'héberger, de me cacher, dans leur maisonnette, pourtant déjà bien exiguë de l'impasse Florimont. Outre le courage et la générosité de m'accorder de l'espace et d'assumer le risque, il allait bien vite se poser le problème de la nourriture, puisqu'ils acceptaient que l'on mange à trois avec des coupons d'alimentation émis pour deux personnes. La bonne Antoinette et ma brave mère aideront dans la mesure de leurs moyens par quelques colis occasionnels. 
L'état de siège dura un an et deux mois. Mais même après la Libération, j'ai tout naturellement choisi de demeurer chez Jeanne, malgré l'inconfort notable des lieux, sans électricité, sans eau courante, sans tout-à-l'égout. Ce n'est qu'à partir de 1952, grâce à mes premiers cachets, que j'ai pu progressivement rehausser le niveau de confort de la maisonnette, jusqu'à acheter la maison mitoyenne pour agrandir.

Et ce n'est que lorsque Jeanne, devenue veuve, a décidé de se remarier, en 1966, que j'ai choisi de quitter l'impasse, mais sans m'éloigner du quartier, que j'ai toujours habité par la suite. Ainsi, j'ai pu pour un temps et dans la mesure du possible, préserver mes petites habitudes, les résidents de ma paroisse respectant généralement, tout comme vous l'avez fait vous-même, le territoire privé de mon quotidien.

Au plaisir,

Click here to go to the Alphabetical list of Brassens Songs with English translation


Corinne said...

Merci, j'ai bizarrement beaucoup appris dans un article rédigé en anglais sur un poète qui a bercé mon enfance et ma vie adulte.

David Yendley said...

J’espère bien que je mérite vos paroles gentilles, Corinne. Merci – David Y

Unknown said...

De quoi est-il mort, George Brassens?

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Hanneke said...

Beautiful article! Thank you. I just discovered George Brassens in a graphic novel, Los ignorantes (Spanish translation)by Etienne Davodeau.

Anonymous said...

Hello, nice article, but there is an inaccuracy.
You wrote, In his song,”L’auvergnat”, he talks of one sole person who looked on him with compassion when the police took him away and this could have been his father.

The song about that episode his Les quatre bacheliers, not L'auvergnat. L'auvergnat was inspired by Marcel Planche, Jeanne Planche's husband.

Su said...

Thank you so much for this detailed portrait of M. Brassens as a young man, it explains a lot