Jacqueline Chambord: Manhattan Rendezvous

Most people who have heard of Jacqueline Chambord know that she was the heart and soul of the French Institute Alliance Française in New York for 36 years. Starting in 1973, she directed the institution’s art gallery and developed its cultural programs. Nurturing a passion for photography, she also captured images of hundreds of events at which figures such as Marcel Marceau, Elie Wiesel, Jeanne Moreau, Jean Babilée, Benjamin Millepied, Juliette Gréco, and Michel Legrand showcased the best of French culture.
© Manuel Braun

Golden, mid-length hair brushed back, wearing a little makeup and no jewelry. This is how Jacqueline Chambord – the pseudonym she adopted in the early 1950s – welcomes us into her Paris apartment. She is barefoot, wearing skinny jeans topped with a black flannel jacket highlighting her tall figure as a former model. “I’m a simple host,” she says, although the adjective is far from apt. “I was born on February 19, 1928, and anyone who says different is a liar.” We lose our train of thought as we try to do the math. But Jacqueline Chambord doesn’t wait for us to finish our calculations: “I’m almost 94.”

She continues: “I was born in Havana. My father was an engineer sent to Cuba by the Cail construction company.” (She spells out the name of the company, apparently used to youthful ignorance.) When we ask if she learned Spanish while living there, she replies: “My parents and I went back to Paris when I was five.” She quickly moves on from her earliest memories, and skims over her childhood spent on the Rue Chambiges in the eighth arrondissement of Paris. “I was the only child of a bourgeois couple who were 25 years apart. Let’s just say that I was spoiled.” Jacqueline turned 12 in 1940. Née Weil, she fled to Saint-Etienne in the unoccupied Free Zone with her parents. She also refuses to speak about how difficult it was at the time, or about her father’s death at the age of 74 at the height of the war, leaving her unemployed mother to raise a child alone.

“After the liberation, we went to stay in Cannes with a friend who ended up marrying my mother, and I started at the Ecole Nationale des Arts Décoratifs in Nice.” When asked why she did not finish her studies, she replies with a wicked grin: “Who knows! Maybe someone thought I had a physique better suited to the stage…” The young woman left the Côte d’Azur and moved to Paris, where she enrolled simultaneously at the Conservatoire National de Musique and the Conservatoire National d’Art Dramatique.

In the Spotlight

In 1948, she was awarded the Conservatoire de Musique’s second prize in the opera category. Then in 1950, “in the tropical heat,” she successfully passed her two exams to graduate from the Conservatoire d’Art Dramatique. One journalist described her as “both smart and attractive.” And who could have resisted this young blonde, 22, whose confidence so impressed her classmates? She was hired for several roles in the theater until June 1952, when she stepped onto the boards at the Opéra Garnier as a narrator in a production of Rameau’s Les Indes galantes. “I was accompanied on stage by Jean Berger. Before the start of each act, we recited our text and had the audience’s complete attention just for us. We began with a performance every week, which then dwindled to one a month,” says the former debutante, displaying her trademark impatience.

Portrait of Jacqueline Chambord in the dress she wore in Les Indes galantes, at the Opéra Garnier in 1952, her first success on stage. © Manuel Braun
Jacqueline Chambord in the mid-1950s, a decade where she appeared in many films. © Personal archives

In an effort to “pass the time,” she acted in a number of movies, including Max Ophüls’ 1953 The Earrings of Madame de…, Sacha Guitry’s 1954 Royal Affairs in Versailles, in which she shared a charming scene with Denis d’Inès from the Comédie-Française, in Yves Robert’s Les hommes ne pensent qu’à ça and Christian-Jaque’s Madame du Barry that same year. In 1955, she once again worked with Sacha Guitry, this time on Napoleon, before playing an opera singer in Claude Autant-Lara’s Marguerite of the Night. When we point out that she has acted for some of the greatest filmmakers, she raises her eyebrows and corrects us: “They were minor roles… And almost always as ladies of the court. I don’t know why… But did I tell you about Cocteau?”

“André Levasseur, who was learning patternmaking with Christian Dior, created my costume for Les Indes galantes. He was adorable. We were the same age and he became my best friend. In 1956, André was asked to take care of the decoration of the reception for the marriage of Prince Rainier of Monaco and Grace Kelly. This is when he introduced me to Jean Cocteau. Having recently joined the Académie Française, Cocteau had agreed to write two complimentary speeches to be read out before the civil service. And he chose me to read the first prose speech, in a courtly style, to open the gala at the Sporting Club, which had been decorated to look like Versailles for the occasion. On Sunday, April 15, standing in front of representatives from more than 36 countries, I walked onto the stage in a sumptuous costume created by André.” When asked “Were you nervous?” she replies with a confused look. “Probably,” she says, but her eyes seem to beg the question “About what?” After this moment in the international spotlight, she made further contributions to French cinema, including a role in Jean Delannoy’s 1956 historical drama Marie Antoinette Queen of France. Then, in March 1957, our actress set her sights on America.

“My Heart Is French, but My Life Is in New York”

“An aunt who lived in New York invited me to Manhattan. She was sure that Broadway and Hollywood would fling their doors open for me. As soon as I arrived, I was asked by an advertising agency to promote Billy Wilder’s latest movie, Love in the Afternoon.” Thanks to that same agency, the jolie actrice française was then hired by General Mills, which had just launched a flour for making choux pastry. “I became Miss Cream Puff! My role was to follow the company’s directors as they toured the country. Meetings were organized everywhere to attract new shareholders and raise capital. At the end of the official speeches, I performed a little number complete with a slight Maurice Chevalier accent, which added an extra lightheartedness and joy to the proceedings. We had a lot of fun.”

Jacqueline Chambord and Jean Cocteau in Monaco in 1956, for the wedding of Prince Rainier III and Grace Kelly. © Edward Quinn (www.edwardquinn.com)

After returning to New York, she came face to face with the harsh reality of Broadway, in which there were countless candidates but only a few who actually made it. Her accent saw her restricted to certain jobs, which she soon grew bored of. “As I was passionate about decorative arts and fashion, I spent some time working as a designer for a skirt maker.” Needless to say, the young woman had many talents. “I then became a production assistant for a television company. That’s where I met Joseph Papp, the producer behind the New York Shakespeare Festival. He hired me for a role in Henry V, the play that opened the festival in 1960.” This success rekindled her interest in theater. She returned to an old love, Marivaux, as a director and developed Double Inconstancy for the amateur troupe Le Petit Théâtre in 1962. Despite the positive reviews, the American dream stopped there and she finally turned her back on the stage. “Regrets? What for?” she says. She then adds, with her infamous pragmatism, “I had to eat!” Jacqueline Chambord then worked for two graphic art galleries in Manhattan before launching her own publishing company specialized in engravings in 1968. “My luck didn’t hold for long. When the first signs of the recession appeared, I had to close everything and start over.”

“In 1973, I ended up accepting an offer from my friend Jean Vallier, a compatriot and fellow film buff who had just been appointed director of the Alliance Française, and I started working for him. With the merger between the Alliance and the Institut Français, I opened a gallery in the new French-American cultural center that is now known as the FIAF.” Jacqueline has always been very discreet about her love life. She is known for having signed the 1971 pro-choice “Manifesto of the 343 Sluts,” but conveniently forgot to tell us that a handsome stranger tried to woo her by giving her a camera while she was crossing the Atlantic in 1957. She still has it today, and it inspired her passion for photography. She even gathered together her images of New York in a book, Manhattan rendez-vous, in 2007.

Panache, Always

In Paris, the interior of her apartment gives nothing away about her past as an actress or the art director of the FIAF. “What’s the point? Today I’m an old woman with painful joints who needs help walking.” When we shoot her a doubtful look, she adds: “Go look at my old-lady stick in the entrance!” We find no cane, but instead an extendable leg of a camera tripod leaning by the door. “I use it to walk,” she says, mischievously. “What did you expect?”

The time has come for us to take our leave. Jacqueline Chambord takes our hands and squeezes them in hers. Her eyes, which have seen so many countries, so much beauty and talent, lose their authoritarian sharpness for a moment, suddenly filling with a tenderness that seems to say “thank you.” Moved, we walk slowly away, sure in the knowledge that we have just experienced something truly unique.


Article published in the March 2022 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.