Some evenings in the Parc de Bagatelle in the heart of the Bois de Boulogne, a tall, elegant, white-haired woman with an androgynous silhouette who may look vaguely familiar can be seen quietly contemplating the trees with their long branches, dense foliage, and thick, elephant-hide trunks. She is very likely to be Françoise Hardy, a French national treasure and nearby resident, on one of her regular walks – a favorite way, she says, to forget about problems and anxieties.
Françoise Hardy’s autobiography, The Despair of Monkeys and Other Trifles, was published in English for the first time last May. The book came out in France in 2008, but the intervening years caused her anxiety in spades. She learned in 2004 that she had lymphatic cancer, and in 2016 she was placed in a coma from which it seemed unlikely she would ever wake up. But she recovered, and has just released what one might call a celebratory new album, Personne d’autre (Nobody Else), in the United States.
Born in 1944 in Paris to an unmarried mother whom she adored and protected all her life, she calls her childhood self “the sad incarnation of order and discipline,” much to the frequent exasperation of her mother, who was neither. But the phrase applies at least in part to the rest of her life. Françoise Hardy, an icon of the Sixties, was in most respects the very opposite of the restless, disordered, tumultuous age in which she flourished.
She was 17 when she began her singing career. Her rise from timid, tentative girl in an agony of shyness auditioning for a record label to a star with her first hit, “Tous les garçons et les filles,” defined the term “meteoric.” In her impressionable late teens she was plunged into a world of sex, drugs, and alcohol; but she disapproved of sex without love (“sexual relations without love reduces the other person to the status of an object”), steered clear of drugs, and was and remains a moderate drinker who only recalls being drunk on one or two occasions.
In her memoir, she tells an amusing story of being asked by Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards to his apartment in London. A big fan of the band, Françoise showed up at the appointed time to find Richards’ girlfriend also present. She describes an awkward scene in which she suspects the couple’s intentions in inviting her, and departs as quickly as possible.
In between quiet moments of elation, such as when she signed her first and longstanding contract with Vogue Records, life for her was a perpetual state of anxiety. The shyness and insecurity of her teens never really left her. Her brilliant career was “a gilded prison.” A harsh critic of her own work, she found most of her performances could have been better. When her first lover, a photographer, was on an assignment, she was convinced he would fall in love with the woman he was photographing…
And so it goes on throughout most of this candid, articulate, but mildly exasperating autobiography. What makes it a good read is her quiet, self-deprecating narrative, which one critic described as English humor. But no, it’s cultivated French pessimism. She has a strong will and strong opinions, strongly held, including on the Iraq War, abortion, and the consequences of overpopulation. In another departure from the temper of the 1960s she sat out the upheaval of May ’68 in Corsica, sent there by her record company “until calm was restored.”
In her autobiography, she pronounces on this historic moment in French 20th-century history: “I have always felt an instinctive distrust of student movements, where often we find agitators of the extreme left exist… May ’68 simply brought into the light a collective evolution whose process, triggered long before, was reaching maturity.” The same year, at age 24, she rose to the top of French and British pop charts with “It Hurts to Say Goodbye” (“Comment te dire adieu”), written by Serge Gainsbourg.
Her first boyfriend, the French photographer Jean-Marie Périer, shot her for fashion magazines. William Klein and Richard Avedon also photographed her for Vogue and multiple other publications. Her face appeared on Paris Match so regularly that she became the French cover girl of the 1960s. Françoise Hardy recently told the New York Times she was well aware that the foreign press at the time was more interested in the way she dressed than in her songs. André Courrèges, and Paco Rabanne were among the couturiers who dressed her. But she always had a preference for Yves Saint Laurent’s “Le Smoking” suit.
Though she did not hang out with the bohemians and intellectual crowd of the Left Bank, she became associated with the romantic existentialism of the time. In 1966, Jean-Luc Godard cast her in a cameo in Masculin Féminin, a defining French New Wave film. As her fame grew, she drew the attention of Mick Jagger, who described her in an interview as his ideal woman, and Bob Dylan, who included a beat poem to her on the sleeve of his fourth album, 1964’s Another Side of Bob Dylan – “for Françoise Hardy/at the Seine’s edge/a giant shadow/of Notre-Dame/seeks t’grab my foot/ Sorbonne students/whirl by on thin bicycles…”
In 1981, she married singer, songwriter, and actor Jacques Dutronc after a long period in which, typically, they circled each other warily like two sumo wrestlers (except much thinner, of course), each unable to make the decisive move. In Europe, they were a superstar couple, and the marriage produced a son, Thomas, himself a singer-songwriter. In marriage, Dutronc remained the clownish playboy beloved by the French and, of course, a source of fresh anxiety for his wife, who writes about her anguish at his affair with the German actress Romy Schneider, with whom he was making a movie.
Françoise Hardy channeled this constant inner torment into the songs and albums she composed and performed with such exquisite style and success – from “L’amour s’en va” in the 1960s, to La Question, a more mature album of her later years in 1971, to Clair-Obscur in 2000. Yet even at the height of her fame she remained a starry-eyed fan of other favorite performers. While shopping in London, she ran into Mick Jagger. The two exchanged greetings and went their separate ways. But she felt like someone who had “had a heavenly vision and wonders if they might ever get over it.” Meeting with the Everly Brothers, the singing idols of her girlhood, was the high point of a visit to New York. Singing in French, Italian, German, and English, the shy beauty in turn cast a spell on many of her contemporaries. Serge Gainsbourg, Jacques Brel, and – of course – her close friend Johnny Hallyday were admiring fellow inmates of her gilded cage.
Françoise Hardy’s memoir takes on a very somber tone when she writes, for example, about her beloved mother’s euthanasia, and the schizophrenia of a sister whom she could never love – to say nothing of the murder of her father by a younger male lover. Today, miraculously recovered and amicably divorced from her husband, she lives in a two-bedroom apartment in the 16th arrondissement, listening to classical music, writing, and reading the works of favorite writers who have become friends, such as controversial novelist Michel Houellebecq. And walking in the park, of course.
Article published in the July 2018 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.