Reflections with Richard Williams: November 2017

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Now 90, French singer Juliette Gréco has written subtly about an affair with one of France’s most distinguished bygone racers

The first half-century of motor racing was filled with the faces of bereaved beauties, from Elly Beinhorn-Rosemeyer and Erica Seaman to Louise Collins, Sally Courage and Nina Rindt. Here’s a story I didn’t know before I read the autobiography of Juliette Gréco, the chanteuse who bewitched the Left Bank existentialists in the immediate post-war period, and who turned 90 earlier this year.

Until recently she was still captivating audiences with the songs – “Déshabillez-moi”, “Je hais les dimanches” and “Les feuilles mortes” – that evoked her emergence in liberated Paris, where she became the lover of the great jazz trumpeter Miles Davis and the powerful film producer Darryl Zanuck, her long hair and oversized sweaters making her the model for a new generation of beatnik girls.

In her memoirs she discusses her greatest loves, starting with the one that she describes as “the most beautiful, my first, the love of my twenties”. He was a racing driver whom she identifies only by his initials. But those initials are distinctive enough, along with the circumstantial details, to leave no doubt that she is writing about Jean-Pierre Wimille.

Born in Paris in 1908, the son of the motoring correspondent of the Petit Parisien newspaper, Wimille made his big-time debut in the 1930 French Grand Prix, at the wheel of a Bugatti. Considered by Enzo Ferrari to be the most gifted of his generation of French drivers, he won the majority of his pre-war successes, including the Le Mans 24 Hours in 1937 and 1939, in cars from Molsheim. In 1938 he became an Alfa Romeo works driver, and 10 years later he was re-engaged by Alfa Corse to drive its Tipo 158s, alongside Nino Farina and Achille Varzi, on the firm’s return to GP racing.

By then he and Gréco had met at the Tabou, a club in Saint-Germain-des-Prés where Jean-Paul Sartre and Jean Cocteau were among the regulars. She was 19 and had survived imprisonment by the Gestapo at the notorious Fresnes. He was 39 and had worked, like his friend Robert Benoist, for the SOE’s ill-fated ‘Clergyman’ network in Paris. “He was handsome, with blue eyes and a fine face, and with long, strong fingers,” she writes. “He was twice my age and he was married, but that didn’t bother me.”

His wife, Christiane ‘Cric’ de la Fressange, a skiing champion and a society figure, had also survived Fresnes.

Every time her lover left for a race, Gréco writes, she listened anxiously to the radio, waiting for news. When he returned safely, they went dancing or drinking at the Tabou. “One day he invited me to go with him to Italy, where he was visiting the Alfa Romeo factory,” she writes. “I threw a few clothes into a small bag. It was the first time I had stayed in a luxurious hotel. Since then nothing else has seemed quite so beautiful.”

In Milan he gave her money and told her to go and buy some shoes. When she came back with a pair of pretty thonged sandals, made in Capri, he was surprised that she hadn’t chosen something fancier. “I hadn’t thought about that,” she says. “He was there, close to me, and that’s what I wanted. Nothing more.”

In his Alfa road car – a Touring-bodied 6C 2500 – they headed for the Côte d’Azur and the celebrated Hôtel du Cap. On the final day of their stay, Gréco took a last opportunity to sunbathe on the hotel’s secluded private beach. She was stretched out on the sand and feeling completely happy when suddenly, without realising that he had joined her, she felt his finger on her nose.

How long it is, that beautiful nose,” he said. Her reaction was dramatic. Unthinkingly, he had touched a vulnerable spot: “The axe falls. I’ll hate forever this nose that I’ve never liked,” she writes. And a woman who had never considered herself beautiful, but had only wanted to feel comfortable in her skin, was now compelled to take action.

The first surgeon botched the job. A second operation, an attempt to rectify the damage, also failed. It was third time lucky, however, at the hands of Archibald McIndoe, the celebrated New Zealander who spent the war at the Queen Victoria Hospital in East Grinstead, reconstructing the badly burnt faces of RAF men, including the fighter aces Richard Hillary and Geoffrey Page, whose injuries had required 15 separate operations. After the war McIndoe set up in private practice in London, and Gréco was among his grateful patients.

But Wimille would never see the result of his throwaway remark. One day in January 1949 Gréco waited, in her usual state of anxiety, when the news came through from Buenos Aires. During early-morning practice in Palermo Park for the Gran Premio Juan Domingo Perón, he had lost control of his little Simca-Gordini on a fast curve, crashed into a tree and died in an ambulance on his way to hospital. Gréco was told that he was avoiding children running onto the track. Others would suggest it was a dog, or maybe a low sun blinded him.

Cric, his wife, had made the trip with him. When, half a century later, she supplied material to the two authors of his biography, the book contained no mention of a lover.

“I live with the sadness of his departure,” Gréco writes, “hidden deep within me. Forever.”

Richard Williams is a former editor of Melody Maker, was The Guardian’s chief sports writer and is the author of several books on Formula 1