The Parisian concert hall Olympia was filled with thousands of excited fans in May 2014. They were there for Juliette Gréco, who was already 87 at the time. Everyone was well aware that it might be their last chance to get to see the artist who has been dubbed "the high priestess of existentialism." The grande dame of French chanson showed up on stage, greeted by thunderous applause. For many, it felt like they were meeting a good old friend again.
Youth afflicted by World War II
Juliette Gréco was born on February 7, 1927 in Montpellier on the French Mediterranean coast. Her father, a police commissioner from Corsica, left the family early on. Her mother moved to Paris with her two daughters and became active in the resistance movement against the German occupiers. Juliette and her sister Charlotte were mainly raised by their grandmother in Bordeaux.
In 1943, her mother and sister were arrested by the Gestaspo and were deported to the concentration camp in Ravensbrück. Both survived the ordeal until liberation in 1945. Juliette, too young to be deported, was kept for three weeks in the women's prison Fresnes.
Melancholy as a trademark
After the end of the war, Juliette started singing in cafés in Saint-Germain-des-Prés. In 1946, she was among the founders of the cellar club Le Tabou, a famous haunt of French existentialists.
Philosopher and novelist Jean-Paul Sartre, film director and actor Orson Welles and Berlin film diva Marlene Dietrich were among the café's regulars.
Juliette Gréco was fascinated by the unconventional style and mindset of these new intellectuals. In turn, they were also inspired by the singer.
"Her voice carries millions of poems that haven't been written yet," Sartre once said. He felt that she made people aware of the sensual beauty of words. Gréco became friends with Sartre and painter Bernard Buffet.
Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus also wrote lyrics for her songs, describing the post-war generation's hunger for life.
Gréco had long black hair at the time and wore black make-up and black men's trousers. It was her way of demonstrating her affiliation to the existentialists. Her dark voice made her the perfect interpreter of such melancholic songs. She would quickly be celebrated as the "black muse of Saint-Germain-des-Prés." "Black provides space for the imaginary," she told the German weekly "Die Zeit" in 2015.
Her friendships with poets and intellectuals were more lasting than her love affairs, which she had with both men and women. In her 20s, she had a relationship with jazz musician Miles Davis.
"What do I care what other people think?," she'd typically answer to anyone who'd ask.
She married three times and had a daughter with her first husband, actor Philippe Lemaire. Her second husband was actor Michel Piccoli. Since 1988, she has been living with her third husband, pianist and composer Gérard Jouannest.
'The stage is my home'
Her songs "Si tu t'imagines" and "L'éternel féminin" became hits at the end of the 1940s. She would also sing some of the chansons of her colleagues, like Jacques Brel or Georges Brassens. She was a celebrated performer in France, Germany, the US and Japan.
Gréco also obtained film roles, performing for author, filmmaker and painter Jean Cocteau in "Orpheus" (1959). Further roles would follow.
To this day, Gréco feels the words she sings: "Even if I tell the story of a 16-year-old girl, I believe what I'm singing. I am that girl." She manages to do that even at an advanced age. It only requires a lot of energy.
Building trust in Germany
Her first performance in Germany after the war was in 1959. She initially hesitated to go to the country responsible for her family's traumatizing experiences. She sang with tears in her eyes that night; she later said she was thinking about the time her mother and sister spent in Ravensbrück.
After the hesitant start, she kept returning to Germany. She would perform often in Berlin. In Hamburg, the revue "Marlene" combined songs by Marlene Dietrich with her own material. She was a guest of honor at the German Schwetzingen Festival. In 2005, she even released an album in German, "Abendlied."
Two years ago, the existentialists' muse launched her emotional farewell tour, "Merci." With concerts around the world, she fulfilled the fans' expectations, singing hits such as "Déshabillez-moi," "Sous le ciel de Paris" and "Amsterdam" by Jacques Brel. Her singing was accompanied by the gestures which became her trademark over the nearly 70 years of her career.
She said "au revoir" to her fans in Frankfurt in 2015; they thanked her with a long ovation.
However, in March 2016, she had a stroke and had to cancel her concerts to recover.
"I am not afraid of dying," she had previously told "Die Zeit," "I'm only afraid of having to stop singing. But you have to know when something is over."
Now celebrating her 90th birthday, she can proudly look back at a remarkable and influential career.