Leslie Caron and her companion, Jack, greet me at the front of their apartment. They make a well-matched couple – slight, chic, immaculately coiffured. Caron, the legendary dancer and actor, is 90 in two weeks’ time. Jack, her beloved shih tzu, is about nine.
Caron heads off to make the tea, with Sidney Bechet’s summery jazz playing in the background. I am left alone with Jack to explore the living room. It feels as if I am tunnelling through the history of 20th-century culture. Here is a photo of a pensive François Truffaut; below is a smirking Warren Beatty. The centrepiece on the wall is a huge watercolour of Caron’s great friend Christopher Isherwood, painted by his partner, Don Bachardy. To the left is Louis Armstrong, to the right Rudolf Nureyev, with whom she starred in 1977’s Valentino, and further along is Jean Renoir, who she says was like a father to her. And we have barely started.
Caron leads me into her magnificent garden, long and thin as a cricket wicket. “What do you think?” she says, with undisguised pride at her handiwork. She points out the petunias, geraniums, forget-me-nots and a solitary rose trailing on the wall. The pots, some of them almost as big as she is, line up like a military tattoo. “The rose came out in the night. Fabulous.” She licks her lips.
Caron is birdlike and as elegant as ever. Her hair is brown and bobbed with the now trademark white streak, eyes large and dusty blue, voice youthful and distinctly French. Her sentences are punctuated with a pealing laugh. From a distance, she sounds so full of joie de vivre. And she is, in a way. But when she tells her story, it is not quite so carefree.
It is 70 years since Caron became France’s first great female Hollywood star, opposite Gene Kelly in the musical An American in Paris. At 16, she had signed up with the choreographer Roland Petit’s Ballet de Paris, hoping to be the next Anna Pavlova. She even considered changing her name to Leslie Caranova. At 17, she was spotted by Kelly performing in Paris. Eighteen months later, she was working with him in Hollywood. Caron could not have looked more innocent, with her pixie haircut, cherubic cheeks and toothy grin. She seemed born to play cute ingenues. And so she did. But her characters could not have been more different from her. “I had a tendency to be melancholy,” she says.
Caron felt so much older than her years. She had already lived such a full and fraught life, coming from wealth on her father’s side and scandal on her mother’s. Her father, Claude, was a Parisian pharmacist, perfumer and boutique owner. Her mother, Margaret, was a divorcee who smoked, dyed her hair and had been a professional dancer until she married Caron’s father. During the second world war, the family lost their fortune – and, ultimately, far more. “My mother died of it,” she says baldly. Her mother, who had grown up in poverty, could not cope with their reduced circumstances. She became depressed and an alcoholic and, in her 60s, killed herself.
As for Caron, she says the war defined her – and continues to do so today. She still roasts her potato peelings and sticks slivers of soap together so they don’t go to waste. But it goes deeper than that. “The thing about the war is people turned really nasty. Everyone talks about the solidarity of the war, and it may have happened in England, but not in France. We were ashamed to have given up and to have the German enemy right there. So there was shame and animosity. You couldn’t ask somebody in the street where anywhere was – they would insult you. Even to this day, I cannot ask people for help. I expect to be turned down.” She became anxious and anorexic.
Caron went to an elite school run by nuns. The girls were highly educated, but with little expectation of a career – they would simply marry into even more money. But with no dowry, Margaret accepted that her daughter would have to work, just as she had. “My mother said: ‘There’s only one profession that leads you to marrying money and becoming a princess or duchess, and that’s ballet.’”
Her mother decided they would tell her father and grandparents over Sunday lunch. “She said: ‘Leslie has something to announce,’ and I said: ‘I want to be a ballet dancer.’ My grandfather whispered heavily: ‘Margaret, you want your daughter to be a whore?’ I heard it. This has always followed me.”
The thing is, Caron says, there was a truth to it. “In those days, a ballet dancer was a little whore. It was all organised. In the intermission, the little dancer went with her mother into the foyer and gentlemen would come and make a choice and discuss the terms.” Ballet was beneath her class. “Ballet dancing was for what is called la fille de la concierge – the caretaker’s daughter.” She giggles.
Caron has an ambivalent attitude to so much of her career. While she adored ballet, her grandfather’s comments stayed with her. She loved many of the people she worked with in the movies, but often something held her back from fully enjoying the experience. While making An American in Paris, directed by Vincente Minnelli, she had mononucleosis and was malnourished. “I hadn’t eaten properly for five years,” she says. She was also terrified. “I had never spoken in my life on the stage and having to act out loud was a nightmare for me. A nightmare!”
Kelly, 19 years her senior and her leading man, supported her when she was most vulnerable. “He always called me the Kid. And he’d say: ‘Listen, guys, the Kid needs a rest.’ He was a great guy, he really was.” Did she find it strange being cast opposite men who were old enough to have been her father? “No. I didn’t question it. I was thrilled to be asked by those great actors. I think the movies have caught up with reality a little more these days.”
Caron is one of only six women who danced with Kelly and Fred Astaire in movies. She says that while Kelly always danced close to the ground, with Astaire (in 1955’s Daddy Long Legs) she felt as if she was floating. Who did she prefer? She gives me a look. “It’s not fair to ask me that. For 70 years, I’ve refused to answer that. A great dancer is a great dancer.” She says they were such different men – Kelly tough and generous, Astaire urbane and genteel.
Seven years after An American in Paris, she made the romantic comedy Gigi, again directed by Minnelli. It became one of Hollywood’s most successful musicals, winning nine Oscars. Caron was now 27, but could still pass as a schoolgirl. She was a huge musicals star. There was only one problem: “I thought musicals were futile and silly.” She smiles. “I appreciate them better now.”
Was she happy in Hollywood? “No, I was very young and very lonely. I couldn’t find many people who had the same experience. People would say: ‘Oh yes, we had a harsh time in the war – we could only get one chocolate bar a week.’ You can’t explain to people what it was like living with the enemy, machine guns and smell – the constant fear.”
She didn’t have much time for the men who ran the studios. Like so many stars, she was signed on a seven-year contract as an unknown and ended up earning a pittance at her peak. She couldn’t stand the way female actors were treated. “Women were kept in their infancy. In England, actresses are allowed to age; in Hollywood, absolutely not.”
Caron wanted to do more serious acting, so she studied the Stanislavski method, learned about psychological realism and found it thrilling. In 1962, she used it to great effect in The L-Shaped Room, an adaptation of the Lynne Reid Banks novel. Caron showed she could do gritty, playing a single pregnant woman deciding whether or not to have an abortion. She won a Bafta and a Golden Globe and was nominated for a best actress Oscar.
She says Tom Bell, who played her lover, Toby, in the film, was the most empathic actor she worked with. “He really listened. He was fabulous.” Who was her most talented leading man? “Cary Grant,” she answers immediately. In 1964, she starred with Grant in the romcom Father Goose; Grant was 27 years her senior. “Cary was a complicated brain,” she says, pointing to her head. “He was a remarkable performer. He was very instinctive, seductive, intelligent. But when he got mad he would get into a terrible state. He worried about money.” Surely he had plenty of it? Yes, she says, but when you grow up poor you always think like a poor person. “I remember Charlie Chaplin saying to me: ‘If I were rich …’” When Chaplin died in 1977, he left more than $100m to his fourth wife, Oona.
Caron has been married three times. Her mother had taught her that she should always be subservient to the men in her life, that if she were smarter than them she should never show it. And yet she walked out of each marriage. In 1951, at 20, she wed the American musician George Hormel, the heir to the Hormel meat-packing company. Three years later, she left him. “Geordie Hormel was a junkie. That’s why I walked away so fast.”
In 1956, she married the English theatre director Peter Hall, who was to become known as the great impresario of his age. They had two children, Christopher and Jennifer, and were regarded as a golden couple. It was an exciting life – travelling the length of Britain searching out new talent. But, again, there was a problem. “There was no room for me. He didn’t want me to act with him or to work with somebody else. He wanted me in the kitchen preparing sandwiches for him. I just couldn’t accept the situation Peter insisted on.”
Did she tell him? “Of course. I said: ‘Look at the Oliviers. There’s room for both.’ But I wasn’t Vivien Leigh. She had a very strong will.” But you had strength in a different way? Yes, and no, she says. “I walked out. But I do regret walking out on Peter. I wish I’d had the confidence to say: ‘Now, look, this is the way it’s going to be,’ because he didn’t want to split up and he spent several weddings trying to find me again.” In what way? “Everybody would say: ‘My God, she looks just like you!’ Wife No 2, wife No 3.”
As she talks, I am looking at the three classy rings she wears. What do they represent? “Nothing,” she says. She points to a gold ring with a pearl perched on top. “This was my grandfather’s wedding ring to my grandmother. And the pearl was given me by my father and mounted.” She moves to the next. “This is a modest little ring with specks of diamond, which isn’t worth much. It was my mum’s and it saved my finger. A heavy garage door fell on my hand and squashed the ring. My finger would have been severed.” On to the third – four claws holding up the world. “That is the first jewel I bought with the first money I earned in Hollywood. It’s to give me confidence.”
Has she kept her three wedding rings? “No, I just had them melted for cufflinks for my two grandsons. Hehehehe! All three of them. Hehehehe!” She rocks with laughter.
Caron and Hall divorced in 1965, but not before she had embarked on a two-year affair with Warren Beatty. Beatty and Caron were gold dust for the gossip mags – as gorgeous as they were scandalous. There is a story she tells of him waking her up in the middle of the night to tell her he was worried that she wasn’t thinking about him. “I thought it was funny!” she says. Did she find it romantic or disturbing? “Yes, it’s romantic when you’re young and somebody is thinking obsessively about you in the middle of the night. You are quite flattered.”
She also realised it was a sign of his narcissism and desire to dominate. “He considered himself my tutor and told me how to dress and wear makeup and how to behave.”
Beatty wanted to marry her, she says, but she turned him down – repeatedly. “He kept asking me and I kept saying: ‘No, Warren, no.’” Why not? “Everything with him was too dramatic. I didn’t think I could keep up the pace. And I couldn’t, and eventually I left him because of that. He wanted everything to be so well announced. He loved to be trailed around by journalists and to have everything you did photographed. I just couldn’t accept that kind of life.”
I couldn’t imagine two more different people, I say. “Yes, I’m not somebody who likes public life. In fact, it’s amazing that I became a movie star, because I am very shy and retiring.”
Was the contrast part of the attraction? “If you really want the truth, Warren always had girlfriends who resembled his sister [Shirley MacLaine] and I had many of her qualities. I was a dancer, I had a very good figure, I was independent. Until he was a fully grown man, his sister was the centre point of his life. I always said those two, brother and sister, ought to be head of a studio.” I am not sure she means it as a compliment.
At the beginning of the 70s, she decided she had had it with England and the US and headed back to France. Caron calls it a 40-year mistake. There was one more marriage, to the film producer Michael Laughlin in 1969, which ended in divorce in 1980. As soon as you found somebody stifling, I begin to say – “Yes, I walked away.” Again, she mentions her mother – with whom she had a troubled relationship – saying it was Caron’s duty to play second fiddle to men. “But I couldn’t stand it. I really couldn’t stand it. And this is why I’m all by myself now.” She says it without a hint of self-pity. Are you happier for it? “Don’t know. Probably. I still am the same. I can’t stand macho men. Can’t stand them.”
She looks at Jack disapprovingly. “Jack, what are you doing?” He seems to be tap-dancing on my computer bag, I say. She smiles indulgently and says he is named after her great friend Jack Larson, the actor, who was also on the small side.
In 1977, she starred in Truffaut’s film The Man Who Loved Women. Truffaut was another great friend; she adored him and said he was like an older brother. “He was a wonderful teacher; he taught me cinema. He used to take me to see films and he’d dissect them – ‘You see, this is the first act, second act.’ He was a very good critic. It was wonderful. We were watching an Ernst Lubitsch film and he said: ‘See, that’s the beginning of the joke – it will come out soon in the third act.’ He was just fantastic.”
But working with him was a different matter. “He was so directive. There was another one who also was dictatorial – René Clair. He was like Hitchcock. He would even play my part. Finally, I said: ‘René, why don’t you let me suggest things that you may like?’” The directors she loved working with encouraged her to express herself, she says. “They are people who by their presence make you talented. You can smell, you can sense, if they are pleased. Their talent, their imagination, comes your way and you become creative in their style. With Minnelli, I would even place the camera.”
I start to ask what her career in France was like, but she answers before the question is out: “Nonexistent.” She says the French never accepted her – she was regarded as not quite French and not quite foreign. Caron felt she was punished for her success in the US. “They adore someone who’s really British or really American, but somebody who’s French and has made it in Hollywood – and I was the only one who had really made it in a big way – they can’t forgive.” Did they regard her as disloyal? “Something like that. I’m tainted. I’m not true foreign. There I am in Hollywood, but I ‘pretend’ to be French.”
Did that frustrate her? “It saddened me. Really saddened me.” Work dried up and she slumped into a deep depression. As her mother had, she began to drink. Occasionally, she went to work abroad, but returned feeling even bleaker. “I worked with Krzysztof Zanussi in Poland. It was very exciting working with him, then I came back to my flat and felt crushed. I just drank for two or three days. I should have never gone back to France to live. In the eyes of the French, I lost everything I had obtained by being a Hollywood star.”
Most of her later movie appearances have been cameos, playing mothers and widows in films such as Damage, Chocolat, Funny Bones and Le Divorce. By the 90s, disillusioned with the lack of substantial parts, she started restoring a ruin in Burgundy and transforming it into a hotel and restaurant. During the week, she put her heart into the auberge, then at the weekends she was lost.
“I was extremely lonely and overtired and the weekends were abominable. I didn’t want to live them,” she says. Why were they so bad? “Because nothing happened. There was no building to do. I overdid things with too much passion, then found myself alone and crashed.” In 1993, the auberge opened. She was proud of what she had created, but running it left her anxious and exhausted.
Did she worry that what happened to her mother would happen to her? “Yes.” I ask if she came close to taking her life. “Oh yes. I think it’s pure luck that I didn’t.” One black morning in 1995, she woke up thinking: “I don’t think I want to live through this day.” Two days later, she emerged “from a pill- and wine-induced slumber”. She immediately called her son, returned to London and saw a psychiatrist, who asked her to tell him about herself. In Thank Heaven, her excoriatingly honest 2009 memoir, she writes: “The floodgates opened, my life seemed such a failure, such a list of mediocre work, a series of foolish mistakes, a road full of wrong turns … an hour later I was still crying uncontrollably.” She was put on tranquillisers and antidepressants and hospitalised for a month.
Caron realised she was different from her mother: she wanted to live. “My mother went further.” She starts to talk in stubby sentences, trying to work out why her mother killed herself, whether she could have been stopped. “She was wounded as a child by her father walking out and by being poor. Children who have been raised with emotional security, uncles, cousins, friends, that doesn’t happen. My mother didn’t have anything to save her. I guess my father wasn’t enough.”
What saved you, I ask. “My children,” she says. She went to Alcoholics Anonymous for years; she learned coping mechanisms (“Now I have tricks. I know that you better walk out in the streets and suddenly something will interest you and pull you out”); she wrote her fine memoir (she had already written a book of short stories in the 80s called Vengeance); she found reasons to live.
Soon after her breakdown, she was offered a part in the comedy Funny Bones, as the mother of a brilliant, autistic vaudevillian played by Lee Evans. The director Peter Chelsom said that her character was the only sane person in the family. “Ironic to be playing the only sane character when I had just been released from the psychiatric ward,” she writes in Thank Heaven.
Running the auberge proved too tough. By her 80s, she had had enough and decided it was time to return to England. It felt like home. She settled in London with Jack, whom she had rescued from the animal charity the RSPCA, she grew her garden, caught up with old friends, made new ones, hung out with her grandchildren and discovered life could be good. She even got herself some regular acting shifts in the TV series The Durrells.
She loves being back in England. For 40 years, she missed the spirit of her adoptive country. “I love the spirit of the English, as demonstrated by the Queen’s courage. Courage is the most precious quality that the British have.” Has she got that courage? “I think I’m developing it, yeah. I take example from the British fortitude.”
As for drink, she hasn’t touched it for decades. “I’m not interested. I never was. It was just to pass out.” She looks around her. “I’ve got a dog, a garden, family, friends. I do my exercise every morning in the corner there and I keep fit. I owe it to my little dog to keep him fit.”
It is time to leave. Life is slowing down, she says, and she is happy with that. “During the first lockdown, I decided I was retiring. I don’t have to get up tomorrow morning to do something. I can oversleep, I can stay up and watch the end of the film. That liberty is wonderful.” You’ve earned it, I say. “Yes, I think so, too!”
A couple of days later, I call her and find her sounding less sure about the retirement: “You never know what will happen.” She tells me she is in the garden and has some news. “There are four roses now. The new ones came out overnight,” she says joyously. “Fabulous!”
In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or by emailing [email protected] or [email protected] In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international helplines can be found at befrienders.org.