We first published Alix Cohen’s two-part profile of Liliane Montevecchi on January 27 and 28, 2016. We repost the first part here in honor of the premature passing of a lady with great legs, voracious curiosity, enormous heart, and a priceless joie de vie laugh.
Dancer/Actress Liliane Montevecchi’s sunny New York lair is festooned in leopard print and filled with photographs reflecting her feline personality and rich past. The 84 year-old (you’d never believe it, but she tells us herself at the top of every show), however, lives very much in an upbeat present. Fresh flowers and talking stuffed animals gifted by admirers sit between two chairs in the shape of high heeled shoes. Awards are discreetly tucked away. Montevecchi is gracious, warm, watchful and uber-present.
“I was adored by my mother.”
In which Liliane becomes a dancer, joins Roland Petit’s Ballets de Paris, and has her nose bloodied by a lover the night before the company leaves to tour the USA
Liliane Montevecchi was a solitary, only child, but never, she says, lonely. Predominantly brought up by her earthy, farm-bred grand-mère (whom she called old sewing machine), she was pampered and praised by a stylish, Parisienne maman. (When I refer to her mother as French, I am summarily corrected.) “I was the center of attention. Nothing was forbidden me.” Madame Montevecchi designed couture hats for Paulette et Janine on the Rue Royale. She also created much of Liliane’s chic wardrobe.
Liliane and her father; Her mother and Liliane
Her Italian papa, was weak, “I think he lived without living, ” and her parents divorced. Most of the important men in Liliane’s life have been what she describes as “protectors…they were all older, now they’re younger.” Not that, even as a young gamine, was she wispy or incapable. She simply preferred strong, confident lovers or, she adds widely grinning, those who were beautiful. “Have you ever been married?” I ask. “No,”she laughs. “I cheat, but then all the men are also cheaters.” (In fact, Liliane was once married for several days – to the only man who ever made her faint when they kissed. “It was passion, too much, but I am happy to have encountered a man who could do that to me.”)
The Montevecchi laugh rises seconds after that perfectly painted face lights up like a Fourth of July sparkler. It’s memorable – full, throaty, and infectious with effervescent gurgle and something of an after-snort. She laughs like she lives, unconditionally.
Liliane’s stylish mother
It occurs to me that my subject was a child in Paris during The Occupation. “How did you manage?” I ask. “Oh very well. I didn’t like to go to school and each time we had planes coming or bombardment, we stopped lessons and went into the cellar…The only thing missed was cigarettes. My mother went for cigarettes everywhere…” Did you feel threatened on the street? “No, you know my life, even as a child, is a movie. I have the chance of turning a problem into something agreeable. My imagination takes me someplace.” Add to this equation her later comment that “If it’s not a pleasant memory, I erase it from my brain.”
“Did you dance around the house?” I inquire making the usual assumption. “Non, my mother asked one day if I wanted ballet lessons. I said why not and I liked it.” She shrugs. From the age of nine, Liliane attended The Paris Conservatoire. Other aspiring students included Leslie Caron and Bridget Bardot. “I worked, but everything,” she says, “came easy.” Her first ballet role was at Casino de Paris. “For a classical dancer to start at The Casino de Paris takes no shortage of salt.” Years later, Liliane would appear at the venue in The Folies Bergère. “Only their boobies were naked then.”
Young Leslie Caron, Liliane, Bridget Bardot at The Paris Conservatoire
The young ballerina was asked to audition for Roland Petit to replace Zizi Jeanmarie in La Croqueuse de Diamants “because he heard me singing in the bathroom and the part required singing.” The 1950 ballet concerns a gold digger who eats the diamonds her confederates steal. Je suis une croqueuse de diamants/Oui le Diamant c’est ma nouriture/Il convient ma nature… she spontaneously sings to me acapella. (I’m a cutter of diamonds, yes diamonds. They’re my nourishment. They suit me.) “I remember it because I loved it so much…and afterwards I became a prima ballerina. Before, I was in the corps, but not for long. I am never there for long. I have something that-comes out!” There’s that laughter.
La Croqueuse de Diamonds – Liliane with Roland Petit
“Roland surrounded himself with great people.” Dior designed costumes, Picasso sets. Orson Welles wrote the synopsis of La Dame dans La glace (Lady In the Ice) for Liliane. “Someone fell in love with her (the heroine) and melted the ice…I knew Orson very well after that. He was there every day hugging me. I was a tiny thing and he was so big.”
“My first love was a writer. He taught me everything about Beethoven. I know Beethoven like I know Shakespeare. Before I left for America with the ballet, he came and said, I just want to say goodbye. He punched me in the stomach – I couldn’t move, and then in the face. ‘Almost broke my nose. I passed out. Because I was leaving him. He threw me in The Seine once. Thirty years later in Chicago, I heard Beethoven and I had to call him up. I flew to Paris and my mother came and we both went to his house in the south of France. She said, I’m not leaving you alone with him for a second.” The red grin flashes.
“I want to die a dancer!”
In which the company tours, then goes to Hollywood, Liliane has a pas de deux with Fred Astaire in Daddy Long Legs that ends on the cutting room floor
Ballets de Paris appeared on Broadway. Guest star Leslie Caron asked Petit to choreograph her upcoming films, The Glass Slipper and Daddy Longlegs, and for some of the company to feature in them. Off they went to California. John Housman, then Vice President of David O. Selznick Productions, offered Liliane a screen test. “And I said, no! I want to die a dancer! He was my best friend for many years, a father.” It’s easy to imagine her proud, spitfire reaction.
A mix-up with housing lead to Petit and his prima ballerina staying with Elizabeth Taylor and Michael Wilding, who played the prince in The Glass Slipper. Liliane spoke no English. Neither Taylor nor her husband spoke French. She remembers warmth, home cooking and Wilding’s “not knowing where to put his `cacette’” (sexual appendage) when wearing tights. “He tried to put it here,” she demonstrates, “And it should go here. Roland had to show him.” Again, the glorious laugh.
Liz Taylor and Michael Wilding; Leslie Caron, Roland Petit and Michael Wilding
Liliane was at the house in 1956 when Montgomery Clift smashed his car into a telephone pole minutes after leaving one of Taylor’s dinner parties. She winces. “He was so soft and sweet, fragile and always sad. He loved Liz. She was his sister.” The room is momentarily quiet. “After they reconstituted his face, it was not as beautiful as before, but still…”
Choreographer Hermes Pan brought Liliane to the attention of Fred Astaire “they looked and moved alike” with whom she had a featured pas de deux in Daddy Long Legs, which later was cut. “Fred was a perfectionist and a gentleman… I met Ginger (Rogers) when she was married to Jacques Bergerac. He was under the table always touching me. Poor Ginger. Not a good marriage.” The ballet company would play volleyball in Gene Kelly and Betsy Blair’s Rodeo Drive garden. “He had no swimming pool, but a volleyball court. I was not good because my nails were always long.”
“Were you ever intimidated by stars or film moguls,” I ask. “Me? No, never. I’m secure in myself. My mother, when she saw grass with a little fence around, she always said, you walk there, because it’s cleaner.”
The lesson apparently held fast. Many years ago, pianist/singer extraordinaire Steve Ross found himself waiting for Liliane in what he describes as “a VERY seedy rehearsal studio. I’d not met her before and I was abject in my apologies in not having a place to rehearse more suited to her elegance and style. I paraphrase her response –“I’m happy in myself – it doesn’t depend on where I am.” She’s the real deal, authentic, kind, glamorous…
Like Forest Gump, Liliane Montevecchi seems to have been everywhere. She acquiesced to a screen test, shrugged and returned to Paris.
“I learned English when I signed my contract”
In which Liliane becomes a film actress, gains a protector, makes friends with Marlon Brando and Elvis Presley, and attends The Actor’s Studio in New York
When the movies called, Liliane had a change of heart and returned. She signed a seven-year contract with MGM and buckled down to five-hour-a-day English lessons with the studio’s “white haired, bright-little-bird-like speech coach, Gertrude Fogler, who worked with Brando for style and accent in his reading of Mark Antony for Julius Caesar” (Cecelia Ager, New York Times 1954), Ava Gardner on her Carolina drawl, and later, Sophia Loren, among others.
A Coronet Magazine article on Starlets featuring 24 year-old Liliane
“She changed my life. I respected and loved her. It was like school and I was a baby again. I learned a new language, craft, custom. We translated Shakespeare.” Fogler died in Liliane’s arms at the age of 90. Friend, dancer/choreographer/director Tommy Tune tells me she’s always had a group of older people she holds in high regard, that older people and animals move her immensely.
Liliane’s next role was Moonfleet starring Stuart Granger. “Stuart was after me like mad and so vain.” The film was directed by Fritz Lang who spoke French. “I had a scene to do in which I was supposed to breathe very hard, so he took me by the hand and ran me around the set. He was very old at the time. It was sweet of him to have done that.” A small sigh escapes. Meet Me in Las Vegas with Dan Dailey and Cyd Charisse followed. Decades later, Charisse would replace Liliane in Grand Hotel. “Isn’t that funny. She was a such a big star and she replaced me.”
“Were you dating?” I ask. “No, because a very famous heart surgeon took me immediately. He was with Merle Oberon at the time and dropped her like a cucumber. One day she literally threw herself in front of our car. I was 20 years younger than she was. You know how men are. She was dramatique. I left and came back and left for 15 years.”
Early Hollywood Years
“Half of Hollywood must’ve been after you,” I conjecture. “Three quarters!” she says-with coquette expression. “The loves of my life I’ve been with a long time…Rex, Jacques, Claudio. The one I’m with now, it’s been 30 years…I saw this man arriving and I say, oh, oh, pas mal…(not bad)” The very tone of her voice winks.
Rex (the surgeon) apparently knew everyone. Liliane found herself at the center of things. When the young starlet accompanied Clark Gable and Rex duck hunting, she sneezed each time a gun was raised in order to protect the birds. One can only imagine the extent of charm that allowed this kind of interference.
Merle Oberon; Norma Shearer and Martin Arrouge
“Norma Shearer became my mother. She took me to the studio to see her films, just us in an enormous screening room. We would go to Trader Vic’s. Norma knew no French, but she married a French ski instructor (Martin Arrouge) 12 years her junior. She used to call him Irving. I said-Norma, this is Marty! She said, he doesn’t care.” (Shearer’s first husband, Irving Thalberg, helped create MGM. She herself was a successful actress in such films as The Women.)
Actress Arlene Dahl who has known Liliane since their young Hollywood days, affectionately recalls, “She was a flirt. Not only with her eyes, her smile and her laugh, but with her body – her shoulders and her head. The heavy French accent has always been part of her charm. She was outspoken, larger than life. She sparks up any party (then or today) and does more for French women than anyone I can think of.”
Sad Sack; The Young Lions
There were assumptions about French women at the time. Jerry Lewis, with whom Liliane made 1957’s The Sad Sack, cornered her in a bungalow with “Are you French or not?!” later calling it a joke. “I could not stand him… He used to cover people in jewelry because he wanted to buy love. He covered Dean Martin in jewelry.”
Next came The Young Lions with Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift. “I was playing a prostitute and Marlon called-stop! He took me aside and told me when you learn a script, it’s not just reading. You have to understand why you’re doing it, who the character is! Marlon awakened me to something I was not aware of, the depth of an actor. He made me good.” She pauses.
“Did Brando make a pass at you?” I naturally ask.”Oh yes! He adored me, but I adored somebody else. I choose my man, the man doesn’t choose me. We were absolutely pals and it was divine. Everyone wanted to hop in the sack with him. I don’t want to be one of many, no! We rented an old castle in Torremolinos. There was no running water and spider webs everywhere, but it was far from anyone else…When I did Nine, he was calling me up. All the girls would say, no, you’re pulling our legs!”
Montgomery Clift and Marlon Brando
It was Brando and Clift who later paved the way for Liliane’s time at The Actor’s Studio in New York. “Marilyn (Monroe) was there quite often. We had the same agent in Hollywood. A little girl, very beautiful, very insecure…I remember Robert Merrill the opera singer came to class. One note Merrill couldn’t do, he was always stuck with it, so Lee (Strasburg) said, Go against the wall, put your feet up and do the note. (Stand on your head.) So of course he did it perfectly because he couldn’t think… I was impressed by Lee. A teacher impresses me.”
Elvis Presley became a friend during the filming of King Creole. “We were the same age, kids. He and all his school chums with greasy hair lived on an entire floor of The Wilshire Hotel across from where I was at the time. He couldn’t go out without being torn apart, so I picked him up in my Jaguar in the underground garage and we’d go to the beach.” The young performer was also crazy about Danny Kaye (with whom she made Me and The Colonel.) Kaye loved ballet. In fact, when Liliane was touring with Petit and Kaye was on the road with his own show, he would take class with the company. She says he was in very good shape
“I had too much talent to be naked”
The Folies Bergère, Las Vegas and the Mob
David Merrick hired Liliane to replace his lead in the Broadway revival of La Plume de Ma Tante. “Of course, I never did comedy in my life; it’s another thing. I was bad for months, but I became good. I had to understand the timing, the reaction of the people, to wait, to listen, I learned my craft in front of the public. Even now, in my nightclub act, the public tells me what to do. (Watch her, she listens.) David was very stingy. I used to go to Sardi’s and tell them to send the bill to Mr. Merrick. He liked me for that.”
David Merrick, La Plume De Ma Tante
In 1964, she joined The Folies Bergère. “When they asked, I said, What?! I’m not going to come down the stairs with feathers in my derriere (rear), but I did – two years here (in Las Vegas), five years in France. I was not naked, though. I had too much talent to be naked. I always said that. I was the star. There were 17 costume changes a night, but the little part I liked best was as Pierrot sitting on a half moon overlooking Paris.” The charming number was recreated in one of her Teatro Zinzanni shows.
Salvador Dali used to go often to see a number with masks. “One day he sent me flowers. It was carnations and I refuse carnations, it’s bad luck. I sent them back. And he said, `would you like me to draw you instead?’” Her response? “I wouldn’t mind.” She has the drawing somewhere in a suitcase in Paris.
“I was protected by the gangsters in Vegas because I did something for the Mafia. I helped them out at one time when they needed it. The city was chic, fantastic, not like it is now. They remember when you do something for them. Gratitude lasted twenty years. A man called me regularly to see how I was doing. When I said my mother was coming to visit, they picked her up at the airport in New York, took her to The Plaza Hotel overnight, and the next day put her back on a plane to Vegas. I called her up and said, just cool it, don’t be afraid.”
At one point Liliane was made to leave her beautiful home there because she was gifted a small dog and dogs were not allowed on the lease. She’s sure the owner was tipped off. “At six in the morning somebody comes. I was in my pajamas. The men said get out, so I took my Jaguar (the car) and the dog and went to a friend’s. When they (the Mob) called to check on me, I told the story. The owner of the house had a flower shop and during the night, it was bombed…Whenever I went to Vegas for years, I could not pay for anything.” She looks wistful.
Courtesy of John O’Hara San Francisco Chronicle
“Did you have a real home anywhere?” I ask. “Non, I was a professional guest. Each time I lived in Los Angeles my wealthy friends would give me houses. Not anymore. I enjoyed it, I must say. Jacques (her then beau) had an apartment in Paris and a home in the south of France.” (The artist has had a New York address she’s considered a pit stop for 28 years.)
Opening Photo: At home in New York, Courtesy Patrick Niedo, Paris