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BOOK REVIEW : Life of Chevalier Tells Tale of French Theater : THE MAN WHO STOOD FOR FRANCE The Good Frenchman: The True Story of the Life and Times of Maurice Chevalier By Edward Behr ; Villard $27.50, 428 pages

August 06, 1993|ELAINE KENDALL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

As the title implicitly suggests, Maurice Chevalier's biographer regards his debonair subject not only as a consummate theatrical figure, but as a metaphor for the beguiling and often quixotic French personality.

Born in 1888, Chevalier was 84 when he died, mourned "almost on the scale of de Gaulle or Jean-Paul Sartre" by a grieving nation. Maurice Chevalier had come to epitomize France not only to his countrymen but to the world. In the course of a career that spanned three-quarters of this century, the rakish straw boater, the winning, impish smile and the ebullient air had become as instantly recognizable and impervious to time as the Eiffel Tower.

Though Edward Behr follows a strict chronology, supplying abundant details of Chevalier's early attempts to break into vaudeville as an acrobat and then meticulously tracing his career from tiny workmen's cabarets to ever greater successes on stage and screen, some of the most absorbing portions of the book deal only incidentally with Maurice Chevalier himself.

To enlarge and enhance what might have otherwise been merely a nostalgic show-business biography, the author has supplied a remarkable succinct account of the changing French theatrical scene from the early 1900s to the present, dealing at considerable length with other notables, especially the legendary music hall star Mistinguett, first Chevalier's idol and then his lover. In addition, there are cameo appearances by virtually every international celebrity whose life touched Chevalier's, a dazzling international roster of theatrical greats.

The love stories and the other relationships, as much a part of the Chevalier legend as the songs, have been diligently researched and dispassionately reported. When Chevalier's own memories of a romance or a personal association are at variance with other versions, Behr takes great care to present both sides. Beginning with the first serious romantic attachment to the enchanting Frehel (no longer a magic name to contemporary readers but celebrated throughout France at the turn of the century), Behr presents a fascinating gallery of the uncommon women who loved and were loved by Chevalier.

In themselves, these women's lives illustrate both the perils and the delights of fame: Frehel ending her life as a pathetic pauper, the others aging with various degrees of grace.

In exploring and attempting to explain the contrast between Chevalier's unfailingly sunny public persona and his frequent private moods of depression and despair, Behr attributes Chevalier's notorious penuriousness and arrogance to a profound inability to believe in his own good fortune.

As for the widespread belief that Chevalier had been overly sympathetic to the Vichy government during World War II, Behr summarily dismisses these charges as merely the natural desire of the performer to be seen and appreciated. Chevalier, his biographer insists, was completely indifferent to the politics of his sponsors. According to Behr, the majority of French people stoically accepted the surrender and attempted to make the best of German occupation. Chevalier, he assures us, had always been an ardent admirer of Petain, and saw no reason to alter his opinion after the division of his country. Like many (but by no means all) people in the arts at that time, Chevalier was politically naive and interested only in professional survival.

Later, in 1949, in what some critics cynically called a calculated move to reverse the collaborationist stigma, Chevalier signed the Stockholm Appeal against atomic weapons, a widely circulated petition eventually shown to have been instigated by Russian Communists.

Though Behr regards this incident as further evidence of Chevalier's total innocence in political matters, the repercussions of the turnabout would be as unfortunate as the aura of collaborationism. During the anti-communist fervor of the 1950s, Chevalier was declared persona non grata in America, forbidden to perform in the country that had always welcomed him so joyously.

Time resolved these difficulties, and Chevalier resurfaced in the following decade as spry, jaunty and appealing as ever, guaranteeing lasting fame with his star turn in the film "Gigi." That triumph was followed by a long series of "farewell appearances," reminding his admirers to thank heaven not only for little girls, but for aging chanteurs.

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