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Obituaries

Genevieve, 83; French Singer Won TV Viewers

March 18, 2004|Dennis McLellan | Times Staff Writer

Genevieve, the gamin-like French singer and comedian whose fractured English enchanted American TV viewers on Jack Paar's "Tonight Show" in the late 1950s and early '60s, has died. She was 83.

The Paris-born chanteuse, who lived for many years in East Hampton, N.Y., died Sunday of complications of a stroke at her home in Venice, Calif., said her stepson, Tony Mills.

Discovered by an American agent at Chez Genevieve, her Montmartre cafe where she not only did the cooking but entertained customers with her singing, Genevieve arrived in New York City in the spring of 1954.

Six months later, Genevieve (pronounced john-vee-EV) was headlining at the Plaza Hotel's Persian Room.

Her change in fortune primarily came as the result of one appearance on the "Blue Angel" summer TV showcase of her future son-in-law, Orson Bean. Her singing prompted critics to hail her as a female Maurice Chevalier and possible heiress to Edith Piaf's crown.

But it wasn't until she became a regular on the "Tonight Show" in 1957 that the singer with the large, liquid brown eyes and short, reddish-brown hair became a household name.

Her on-air mixture of gaiety and innocence captivated Paar's 8 million viewers. But she had no idea she had a natural flair for comedy until a few weeks after her Paar show debut, when she showed up ill with a high fever to sing one night.

"I didn't know that I could call in and say I was sick," she recalled in a 1975 interview with The Times. "So I went in and started to sing and was so sick I forget half the words. Nobody really knows it, except me and the musicians, not even Jack. But I went backstage and started to cry. I knew I was going to be thrown out."

During the commercial break, "Someone told Jack that the French girl was crying. He came back. I couldn't speak English, and he didn't speak French. So he speak loud, and slow. 'What's ... the ... matter? You ... cry?' he ask me. I point to my head and say, 'Hot.' So he brings me onstage to talk and gives me a big cup of hot rum and honey."

She giggled. "You weren't supposed to drink alcohol on the air, so he tells the audience it's tea. But I was ha-ha-ha by the end of the show -- loaded. "

The more she drank, the funnier she became -- and the more the audience laughed.

Paar knew a good thing when he saw it, and on her subsequent appearances he had her sing less and talk more.

"Jack Paar just fell in love with her because her English was so bad, but it was cute," Mills said. "He'd actually have her read baseball scores, and everybody thought that was just hysterical.

"She was just sort of a bigger-than-life French pixie. That was basically her personality. She was this very adorable, cute French personality."

On one Paar show, Genevieve chopped off the long hair of stripper Gypsy Rose Lee, who thought Genevieve was only kidding when she offered to give her a haircut.

"When she sees the hair going down on the floor ... she was furious," Genevieve recalled in 1975. "But, cherie, she was lovely. After that, she keep her hair short all her life until she died."

Mills said his stepmother toured in Cole Porter's "Can-Can" and other stock productions, and "worked the big rooms" in New York City when she wasn't appearing with Paar and, later, on "The Merv Griffin Show." She also toured with a one-woman show, "An Evening with Genevieve."

She was born Ginette Marguerite Auger, but became Genevieve when the priest at her baptism told her parents that Ginette was the diminutive for Genevieve and that the church required that an infant's given name include that of a saint.

With $4,000 from her father, a prosperous construction contractor, she opened Chez Genevieve in 1949. After firing her chef for stealing from her and showing up for work drunk, she took over the cooking and, at the urging of her friends, began singing to her customers.

In 1960, she married television producer Ted Mills, whom she had met four years earlier when she appeared in the NBC special "Maurice Chevalier's Paris." Her husband died last August.

Genevieve, who retired from show business in the late '60s, never really lost her endearing French accent.

"Her accent became so much a part of her, she never really improved it," Mills said.

In addition to her stepson, an Oakland resident, Genevieve is survived by her two stepdaughters, Hilary Mills Loomis, of New York City, and Alley Mills Bean, of Venice; and three step-grandchildren.

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