The concluding part of this exclusive four part blog piece has been illustrated by Catel, the artist behind multi-award winning graphic novel biography Kiki De Montparnasse. Jose-Louis Bocquet is an editor at French publishing house Dupuis and the writer of Kiki de Montparnasse.
Histories of French music don’t mention the name “Kiki”, yet they do mention another singer of the same period – “Jamblan”. Born in 1900 in Bressuire, “Jamblan” AKA Jean-Marie Blanvillain was to take over the Paris music scene just 25 years later. He called himself a poet and went around with the last Bohemian of Montmartre. To go from poet to songwriter is only a short step sideways for those who want to live from their craft. Every night, at the “l’Ecu terreux” cabaret, Jamblan learned, recited poems and played his songs and that is probably where he met Kiki.
Montmartre had always been her other favourite hangout. A romance started between the two artists, but Kiki never mentioned Jamblan in her memoirs, while Jamblan never hid the relationship to his family. They were beautiful and talented – the Queen of Montparnasse and the songwriter of Montmartre, why shouldn’t they continue their professional journey together? During the Spring of 1929, Moysès hired them to perform at “Le Boeuf sur le Toit” on Rue de Penthièvre. Their partnership worked well enough to lead them to sing, during the Summer 1930, at Jeanne Duc – the trendiest place in St Tropez.
On their return to Paris, they performed at the Oceanic, a cabaret in Montparnasse. Nobody knows when the duet parted ways, but it is thought that their collaboration continued until 1931. At the beginning of the following year, Kiki left alone bound for Berlin. Only one fact is certain, according to a close witness: Kiki’s retreat was inspired by “Ma mie”. In this song, Jamblan told the love story of a completely normal couple (a comical song as it was the polar opposite of Kiki and his bohemian life). Written in 1935, “Ma mie” became one of the hits of the decade, before becoming one of Jamblan’s classics, recorded by Jean Sablon and Charles Trenet. From that point on, Jamblan pursued his solo career. In the wake of Lucienne Boyer and Suzy Solidor, he performs at A.B.C , the “Lune Rousse”, Bobino, the “Deux Anes”. Because of “Ma Mie”, Jamblan will never leave the stage, pursuing a double career as both singer and songwriter.
In the sixties and seventies, his songs were still being interpreted by Jean Ferrat, the Frères Jacques, Patachou and Colette Renard. Jamblan died aged 89, having fallen down his stairs. At the bottom of his souvenir trunk, his daughter Sophie found a typed sheet of paper and the words of a song:
“Tell me about love, Kiki, the way you love it :
A little naïve, quite naughty, always bohemian,
And that you shared at the cabaret,
From the gals of La Rochelle to the gals of Camaret,
The warm love, Kiki, by icy weather, When the northwester wind caressed Montparnasse,
The winter days when we didn’t see the light.
Tell me about love, Kiki, tell me about love.”
[The song was never finished]
“ I have a good ear”, so Kiki said, but more than a singer she considered herself an artist. Success on the stage relies on voice and body, a presence. It is a known fact that it is her stage performances which allowed her to eat every day during most of her life. It is impossible to follow every detail of her career. Thanks to her Queen of Montparnasse crown, she became the wild ambassador of the crossroad of the worlds, performing in either a cabaret of the rive droite or in an other on the Riviera or exporting herself to Berlin.
In moment of professional logic, she opened her own cabaret and named after herself, “Chez Kiki”. It opened for the Universal exhibit of 1936, Kiki recreated there the atmosphere of the Jockey Club.
“Starting at two o’clock , it was totally crazy, and we would finish around 7 or 8 in the morning! The property owner found it a little fanciful. One night, we had a pretty violent discussion… and we separated.”
Of those years, there are few traces except a few photos taken by Brassaï.
In her memoirs of 1929, Kiki admitted : “I can’t sing if I’m not drunk.” Those years also marked the beginning of her flirtation with cocaine and heroine. The Thirties became a decade of chronic addiction for her. In the last chapter of her memoirs of 1938, Kiki described her recent detox treatment. Andre Dédé had made her choose between drugs and him. “My lover forbids me to work, to go back to this world which almost buried me, before I am certain to resist temptation”. Three lines later, she ended her autobiography with
“I have a lover who loves me, whom I love, we will be happy. Everything is fine.”
The words of a junkie. Kiki plunged back into narcotics and Dédé eventually resigned himself to being unable to share a life with the woman he loved. Yet he never abandoned her and remained her companion and protector until the end.
In May 1939, Kiki signed a contract with the phonographic company Polydor for four double-sided records, collecting an 800 franc advance. The indispensable Dédé accompanied her on the accordion. He was also the one responsible for her getting up and ressed in order to make the recordings at all. The first record- Les marins de Groix and Le retour du marin- was released in July of the same year. It seemed that it received a sufficiently warm welcome to ensure Kiki’s recording career would continue. But at the same time, World War II began. During one of Dédé’s leaves, Kiki recorded new titles. Another double-sider – La Volerie and Sur les marches du Palais- was nonetheless released at the beginning of 1940, followed by a third album in April- Là-haut sur la butte and Tout le long de la Tamise- Polydor ended the recordings in October 1941. It wasn’t really the moment for embarking on a recording career, but nevertheless Kiki never repeated the experience.
What followed was a long and slow decline in fortunes for Kiki. Under the German occupation, she still performed at the Jockey – at the time a stronghold of the “vert-de-gris”, and she alternated between detox treatments and troubles with the police. She finally left Paris in 1942 for the countryside with a stonemason “handsome as a god” but who beat her. She returned to the capital after the liberation of Paris and went back to work at the “Boeuf sur le toit”. In 1946, she was accused of the illegal traffic of prescriptions and spent a month in prison.
The following year, she sang for the last time at the “Boeuf sur le toit” then went back to Montparnasse and signed a last contract with “Chez Adrien”, a piano-bar on Rue Vavin. She went around with her hat after the last couplet. Sometimes Kisling had dinner at “Chez Adrien” and wondered what had happened to the glorious model he knew in his youth? At the beginning of the fifties, the American pianist of the Jockey, Hilaire Hiler, returned to Paris. He had been very successful with his abstract paintings on the other side of the Atlantic. He organised a party in honour of Kiki, an evening with all the old group. Hiler played and Kiki sang. But drugs and hard-livinghad taken their toll and had Kiki lost her voice. According to Lou Moolgard, Kiki’s biographer, Hiler returned to the US “with a bluesy heart”.
Excess ruined Kiki’s voice. Yet she continued to try and cure evil with evil. Too much medicine had replaced the lack of cocaine. Sometimes, in a remote bar or at the other side of Montparnasse, she was allowed to sing, often paid with a glass of wine at the counter.
On 23 March 1953, at eleven o’clock in the morning, Kiki was feeding seeds to the birds on her balcony. Suddenly she collapsed in a pool of her own blood. Two hours later she died in hospital. The last witnesses of her life assured that she was singing on her balcony. An old classic from her repertoire. Nini Peau d’chien.
Kiki lived and died a singer, and it is fitting that the most enduring image of her is one that shows her as she truly was; an instrument of both music and art.
To celebrate the publication of this biography (that won the top prize at the Angouleme Festival and was named ‘Graphic Book of the Month’ in The Observer) – double signed first editions of Kiki de Montparnase are available through the following retailers (and via their mail order services) while stocks last:
Blackwell’s Charing Cross Road (London)
Dave’s Comics (Brighton)
Forbidden Planet Megastore (London)
Foyles Charing Cross Road (London)
Gosh! Comics (London)
Mega City Comics (London)
OK Comics (Leeds)
Orbital Comics (London)
Plan B Books (Glasgow)
Travelling Man (Leeds)