How does one create a devastating lady? In our era we seem to think that classes and degrees can somehow produce everything, but the decline of the femme fatale among twentysomethings has become apparent, not least in the cinematic realm. No new Ava Gardners or Brigitte Bardots are coming to stardom, and two main reasons are the lack of powerhouse fathers both feared and loved, and the demise of hardshell religion to shape a young lady, then give her something to revolt against. More generally, we now keep children, not least via that cacophonous babysitter, the TV, from experiencing unenjoyable strictures that might later give them character as adults.
Genetically favored, Bardot also came from the kind of background that seems to have constituted an ideal spawning ground for a femme fatale. There have been many books on this star’s formative years, but we get copious additions and correctives in the best one of all, her own BB: Mémoires of 1996.
The France that BB was born into Sept. 28, 1934 had passed its heyday, in good part due to the trench conflict of World War I, when for more than four years, French armies, including Bardot’s father, did what Scott Fitzgerald said couldn’t be done again—fought tenaciously in awful circumstances and came out on the winning side, but at massive cost. In the ’20s bold new competitors arose, besides the traditional Germans or English: the U.S. in a swaggering young adulthood, and the grimmer, but ideologically seductive Soviet Union.
By 1934, when Bardot was born, France was split between the Right, tending toward Fascism, and a Left that was reluctant to fight for capitalists or anyone else. And of course by the year of her birth Hitler had already become dictator across the Rhine and begun arming his country. But Gallic enjoyment continued to reign, particularly in a capital that was still the loveliest city on earth. If you wanted a break from the rigors of British or American puritanism, here was emphatically the spot to indulge.
Brigitte, however, was from a Paris family that had little use for the capital’s racier sides. The Bardots were quite typical of a primly conservative, Catholic upper-bourgeoisie of the era—the land of elite that has now virtually died out. BB was born and had her earliest memories on the Avenue de la Bourdonnais of Paris’ classy eighth arrondissement (or district), a stone’s throw from the Eiffel Tower she would later rival as a French symbol. Her mother Anne-Marie Bardot, nicknamed Toty, and father Louis, nicknamed Pilou, were strict, money-respecting, by-the-book types. Louis Bardot had graduated from engineering school and gone into the family business, which manufactured liquid air and acetylene. Sixteen years older than his wife, he was an avuncular 38 when the girl they soon dubbed Bricheton or Bri-Bri was born. Father Pilou had two distinct sides—one rather lighthearted, the other uptight and repressive. As a rule he arrived punctually in his office each morning by six a.m. (the firm had offices both in Paris and at a factory in the suburbs).
Bardot’s parents retained all the then unmitigated traits of their class, but somewhat eluded the caricature as well, because each was also artistic, undoubtedly influencing the next generation to come. As a young lady Brigitte’s mother Toty had studied theatre and dance, while Pilou wrote poetry in his notebook and would actually publish several volumes.
Rather like Churchill, BB was also influenced by nannies, including her lifelong favorite, Dada, from Italy, who became a kind of second mother for the intelligent child. Given Toty’s difficulty having Brigitte, her wish for a boy, and her own rather standoffish elegance, this nanny somewhat filled the slack, telling “Brizzi” bedtime stories in mixed Italian-French and teaching the girl to roll her r’s. The family also had cats that pleased the future animal lover.
But though it was a simpler era than ours for children—few media distractions easily at hand—it would not be a simple childhood for Brigitte. Increasingly, the child perceived her beautiful mother as an often unpredictable, complaining, or rejecting creature, and Papa too seemed frequently nervous. BB did adore her maternal grandmother, “Mamie” Mucel, and especially, her maternal “bon-papa,” known from then on as “Boum papa,” or simply “Boum,” the one man, she says, who truly counted in her life. Most other adults around her seemed to stretch the truth, and nothing and nobody could be relied upon.
Even her beloved Dada was replaced at the time of Anne-Marie’s second pregnancy, going over to the grandparents’ apartment, and of course Brigitte ardently loathed the new recruit. Toty and Pilou had wanted a boy as their number two child—the normal upward limit for French bourgeois families of the time; but in the year of Munich, with Europe on the brink of another war, a second girl was born (1938), Marie-Jeanne, henceforth nicknamed Mijanjou.
Not only did Brigitte have to get used to a repugnant new nursemaid, Pierrette, she also needed to habituate herself to this crying, pinkish thing. Having been the only child and only girl for four years, Brigitte was distinctly jealous of the competition, especially since her mother parcelled out attention and affection so haphazardly. But there were sun-in-fog interventions of happiness, as when Brigitte went out on the town alone with her dad to watch a stirring military parade, feeling exalted, or pushed Mijanjou’s carriage in the Bois de Boulogne. With all its goods and bads, Bardot’s childhood in Paris certainly was a childhood, and contemporary young people with latchkey pasts seem more deprived in the maturation process.
In an era of near-at-hand extended family Brigitte made periodic visits to her other grandparents, equally fascinating to the girl, but not so kind and generous. She remembers Grandpa Bardot bending for hours over his roses, sniffing, then unable to right himself. And she realized early on that there were more limits with Grandma Bardot than with her more open-hearted maternal grandmother. These grandparents would have big family dinners at a long table full of tinkling glassware, where Brigitte helped prepare but was then inexplicably relegated to the childrens’ table for the meal, wishing already to be adult. To the child these family functions meant lots of people talking loudly, pinching her, pulling her hair, planting salivaladen kisses on her cheeks (though her beautiful, fastidious mother kissed more cleanly), and not bringing her what she really needed.
From early on BB had a full and giving heart. Her nightly prayers might include the following: “Petit Zezus, protezez tous ceux que z’ aime, sauf Pierrette et la couturiere!” (“Little Jesus, protect all those I wuv, ‘cept Pierrette and the seamstress.”) In childhood the future lobbyist for animal rights already showed that inordinate sensitivity which would remain constant throughout her life.
By 1939 most adults around her seemed unusually anxious, like rats on the Titanic, and the girl felt something unnameable but palpably tense invading the air. When her mother started stocking the cupboards with piles of offlimits candy bars and other items, the child wondered more and more what could be afoot. Of course even when explained, the word “war” can never really be grasped by small children, for it is hard for them to believe the pervasive aggression and insatiability of adults that have caused such conflagrations to break out over time. Indeed, when Bardot started hearing this important new word (“guerre”), she found it hard to fathom. Her mother finally had to explain that it was like one of Brigitte’s girlfriends taking her toys and her fighting to get them back.
After Poland was carved up between Hitler and Stalin in late 1939, there ensued eight months or so of “phony war,” or what the French labelled the “drole de guerre.” That is to say, nothing really happened in the West between September 1939 and the lovely spring of 1940. Of course Bardot’s memories, slipping so readily into the child’s optic, cannot distinguish between that era and the sudden fall of France in May-June 1940 at the hands of Nazi blitzkriegers, crossing the Meuse River, winging Guderian’s tanks over the flat terrain of northern France, then pincering French and British troops up against the Channel coast.
What she does remember—undoubtedly from the period just before France’s fall—is that the family decided to make a disruptive move out of Paris, with the old family Renault, nicknamed “the veal,” stuffed with valises, and Bardot and dad importantly alone in it, while mother and Mijanjou followed in another car with Mamie and Pierrette. The roads were thick with people on foot, bikes, and horseback, as well as in cars. Reaching Dinard on the Channel coast, and with Brigitte content that her nursemaid had decamped en route somewhere in Normandy, they procured a two-room place in this resort town, and her father volunteered for the 155th regiment of Alpine infantry.
Still very young, Bardot was about to enjoy some enforced closeness with an elusive mother. Toty, having little else to do, now spent a good deal of time trying to teach her daughter how to read from a Babar book, but it was difficult for the sensitive child and brought her to tears. Mijanjou also got on Anne-Marie’s fastidious nerves, and then the family abruptly returned to Paris, for Papa was more needed by the French for his factory than for his martial skills.
Back at the Avenue de La Bourdonnais, with its two rooms heated by a lone electric radiator, Bardot remembers constantly being cold and sleeping in her clothes between mother and dad, also in their clothes, When German planes bombed the city in June 1940, Bardot’s family descended into the basement with a candle, which she hated. She remembers how traumatic the shrieking sirens were and remain to her. Soon after, she started school, but more enjoyably, remembers spending 40 days in bed with measles and having her mother read to her from a book by the Countess of S6gur, using different voices for the different characters.
Most everyone in wartime Europe experienced food problems, and as the Nazis spread their occupational veil across the continent, shortages developed in cities like Paris, where one had to get what one could. Unbeknownst to the little girl her favorite nannie, Dada, was sometimes out as early as three a.m., spelled in line a couple hours later by Grandma Mamie, queuing up for luxuries like the lamb’s brains BB’s mother fed her one day, a delicacy intended to help the girl recover from her illness. All white and sticky on the noontime plate, the dish repelled the child, and she refused to touch it. The bourgeoisie still had inflexible limits, and Brigitte sat until dinner time in front of the untouched dish, until her exasperated mother, impulsively pinching her nose, pushed the now icy, gluey stuff into her daughter’s mouth, making her vomit all night and avoid butcher shops featuring lambs’ brains throughout her life!
One of the child’s sole distractions in Nazi-occupied Paris was dancing at home to Pilou’s phonograph, making her mother see the possibility of a ballet career for her. So BB was duly pushed in that direction, but more discipline went with the territory—discipline of a standard that again, has usually eluded today’s supposed sirens of the screen. Bardot remembers, for example, having to walk around the apartment with a pot of water on her head. One false move and the water fell all over her, and she would also receive a slap on her cheek in the bargain. This training had a lot to do with the regal posture and walk that would so often get her recognized in adult life, even when disguised to elude fans or paparazzi. But enrolled in a once-a-week dance course, Brigitte at least found that she preferred entrechats and plies to arithmetic and grammar.
With the war continuing, Anne-Marie decided on a move to another Paris residence, locating a huge apartment of nine rooms across the Seine in the 16th district of Passy, near the Bois de Boulogne. For vacations and on some weekends they went out to the family place at Louveciennes, 15 kilometers from Paris, still the country then, with no running water, and many rabbits, some of whose babies BB tried to feed with a bottle. Others were fenced in by her father, and the family began regularly consuming rabbit for dinner. Brigitte had a special fondness for one named Noiraud, and then one day the bunny was gone—to the forest, said her mother. That night they dined on civet de lapin, but BB wouldn’t eat, crying her eyes out, sure that it was Noiraud on the plate. Much later Anne-Marie confessed that they had indeed killed Noiraud, due to exigencies of the time.
BB’s best friend, Chantal, often accompanied her to Louveciennes, but Brigitte felt inferior to her, given that her father had died in the Nazi invasion, where Pilou had only been wounded in the previous war. Tory, however, told Brigitte that she was privileged just to have a father, so from then on the girl with an effusive heart offered Chantal half her papa.
Both her father and mother were often intolerably stressed. Getting the business payroll each month was part of the problem— noises in the apartment led to bookkeeping errors, then Louis would erupt, Anne-Marie would follow suit, and the two china doll girls, terrified and mute, became nervous wrecks themselves. In those days no parents of that class analyzed themselves; instead they took out the horrors of their own repressions in child-directed sadism. One result was BB’s harassed body pleading for help, in the form of regular eczema outbreaks.
Her apartment change had taken the girl at age seven to a new private school, the Cours Hattemer, where at first she needed only to attend three days a week, making up the rest with homework, or homeschooling, as we now call it. She thus became free to devote three days a week to what she loved far more than school—dancing. These lessons henceforth took place at Madame Bourget’s studio in the Rue Spotini. A succession of housemaids lodged in a stiflingly hot or freezing niche under the roof of the Bardot apartment accompanied Brigitte to school, as they did to catechism; while Grandma Mamie took her to dance classes and often home afterward to her apartment, where Brigitte gladly ate whatever Dada could concoct in wartime, such as fricasseed rutabagas or ersatz chocolate cake.
In this period Chantal remained BB’s only real friend, for snobby Toty and Pilou always asked the occupations of other girls’ fathers, generally finding them unsuitable. And given that Brigitte was a quiet girl, her childhood was a rather lonely one. (Which partially explains why in adult life she would have such deep and long-lasting friendships with members of both sexes.)
Her mother was not merely fussy about potential friends, but about her dress, making the girl obsessive about pulling up her underclothes sufficiently to ward off germs. To save on heating costs Toty also kept the apartment windows shut, and in summer, fearing break-ins, would do so from 6:30 p.m., making the place on hot evenings into a shuttered furnace. (Since then Bardot has always liked things open.)
Besides repressing herself and her children, Madame Bardot also kept everything she could under lock and key—liquor in the liquor cabinet, valuables in commodes etc.—and would often lose the keys, impelling her girls to join in hysterical hunts for them, which sometimes ended with a locksmith’s visit to pick and change locks. Brigitte also had to show maniacally correct standards in making her bed, with papa judging the final result. If his mood was relatively beneficent, she might pass; but if not, parental unfairness, that great teacher, again reared its head, and the young BB would have to do her bed over and over again, in grim, angry silence.
Bardot remembers one especially traumatic incident of this wartime childhood, occurring when she was about seven and a half and Mijanjou four. The two were playing at cowboys and Indians, with the bonne as the enemy, and while hiding under the table and using the table cloth as a tent, the sisters somehow pulled down the cloth, knocking over a fine oriental vase, one of their mom’s prized possessions. Unfortunately it smashed into smithereens. On discovering the damage, an irate Toty awarded the girls hard slaps, then Pilou, in a teeth-gritted rage, caned their behinds 20 times each. Maman thundered that this was her home, not theirs, and that she had the power to throw such disobedient children into the street at any time. She also declared that her daughters would henceforth be treated as strangers, and from that time on must use the formal “vous” with each parent, not “tu.” For BB, this treatment was a real turning point; in some sense she felt she had already lost these parents, probably facilitating her later precocious revolt into “femme fatalehood.” But there was also a fear of abandonment in Bardot that never quite left her, waves of intermittent terror that assaulted her throughout her growing-up years, provoking attacks of eczema and sometimes suicidal feelings as well.
From the era of the vase incident, Brigitte was in constant conflict with her mother, envying no end Chantal, whose mom spoiled her to death with the choicest of toys. So passed the childhood of ajeune fille who was decidedly rangee, one where the Bardots worried inordinately about what the Joneses—or Dubois—might think. Even BB’s First Communion of May 1943 was no mere celebration, but a kind of threat—now you will turn into a good girl seemed to be the implied message.
Another traumatic incident followed in November of that year. Brigitte had just danced, and on arriving home, her father motioned her into the dining room, locking the door to tell her something that seemed ominously important. His announcement to the sweaty girl? That there was no Santa Claus, and that her parents had been buying her Christmas presents all along. Brigitte sobbed uncontrollably, yet another illusion gone.
Christmas was definitely the best day of the year for the young Bardot—with creche, tree, and all sorts of guests on hand, including down-at-heels family acquaintances, bachelors from the factory etc., not to mention gifts that were obviously more precious than the cheaper and more plentiful ones of our era. New Year’s Day, however, bored the girl, and she also disliked her September 28 birthday, for French schools started up on or around October 1; so she invariably received notebooks, briefcases, and other scholastic items as presents. Ironically, a seemingly more favored sister, Mijanjou, was the one who liked school and shone at it, especially in math; while BB, ensconced at the bottom of her class (though intelligent), got herself punished at home for poor grades.
Even for the better off, wartime in occupied Paris exacerbated such childhood tribulations and traumas, and often the young Bardot found herself waking in a sweat, thinking the entire city would be bombed into rubble. Cooped up inside, she would frequently stare at the mirror, thinking she was ugly and wanting very much to look like her sister, sometimes wondering even whether she had been adopted.
Finally came the dramatic Allied landings of June 6, 1944 on France’s Channel beaches. From that exciting era before the Liberation BB remembers Papa Louis coming to get her up at Chantal’s mom’s farm in Normandy, and without a car, carrying her 20 kilometers on his shoulders to reach the train back to Paris. And then from the Gare St. Lazare at two in the morning, she was carried again through Paris’ streets, full of love for this brave father in what remained of wartime.
Final bombardments leading to the capital’s long-awaited liberation were, however, scary, and Toty and Pilou pushed mattresses against the windows to avoid being hit by flying shards of glass. In August 1944 the Americans arrived, greeting children carrying paper French flags with presents of chewing gum and chocolate, as well as kisses. BB didn’t even know how to chew her Wrigley’s, but when school started back at Hattemer, she would trade what she had for the right to copy homework, until her teacher figured out the scam, punishing her for it.
Toward the end of the war the arrival of a new governess, Madame Legrand, who spoke some English, was a significant event for Brigitte, and she would love “la Big” till her death. But the family atmosphere remained a tense one. Bardot remembers her mother blowing up at Big, the governess screaming at the nursemaid, and the bonne then taking it out on the kids, provoking tears.
In retrospect Brigitte thinks the separate bedrooms of her parents created some of the problem—their repressed sexuality, partly a matter of birth control in those days, translating into frequent scenes. Bardot says these parental battles drove her crazy, and still in recollection make her feel panicky today. She remembers strained, ultra-quiet meals, then her parents suddenly bolting from the table, arguing vociferously behind closed doors, Anne-Marie punctuating the argument with loud, hurtling sobs, and the two girls sitting alone like frozen parrots at the table. At night BB would hear her father slam doors and cry out, and a frightened Mijanjou would jump into her older sister’s bed for protection.
One day Pilou packed his bag to leave for good, and Toty on her knees was crying hysterically in front of the lads and Big, for divorce was then a bourgeois disaster. Impulsively, Pilou decided to climb over the balcony and jump, threatening to splatter his brains on the pavement below. Ann-Marie, grabbing at Louis’ leg over the balcony, and the subsequent yelping cries of these two wounded humans still resound in Bardot’s ears.
After the war Bardot would move fairly quickly into the world that made her famous, meeting a first Svengali in 1949, Roger Vadim. How did they get thrown together? The story begins a year earlier, when Anne-Marie decided to start up a hat boutique at home in the Rue de la Pompe. To show one man’s collection Toty conceived the idea of her daughter Brigitte dancing a classical theme to each group of apparel presented. The result was that the thin teenager got herself noticed not only by clients who came around, but by the editor of the magazine Jardin des Modes, for whom she did a spread. From there, in the concentrated world of Paris journalism, word spread to Elle, France’s top women’s magazine of the era, which now sought Brigitte for an appearance on its pages. To accept such a gig the girl had to argue strenuously with a mother who found it potentially scandalous; but finally Brigitte got her assent by virtue of a compromise—a cover profile in Elle, but with no name used other than initials that would later become world-famous, BB.
Elle’s cover photo of Brigitte in the May 2, 1949 issue reached a large audience, and her second appearance on the cover, looking prim and school girlish, led her to the man who would have as much influence on her life and career as anyone. Roger Vadim was the offspring of a Russian father from Kiev, Igor Plemiannikov, and when the boy was born in Paris in 1928, Vadim was to be his first name. But since the law then required a French first name, Igor put a “Roger” in front of Vadim, and when older, the boy simply abandoned his cumbrous last name.
Like many Russians the father had emigrated to France during the Bolshevik Revolution. Becoming a diplomat in France, Igor died suddenly of a heart attack at 34, leaving the boy of eight to start making his own way in life. His mother, Marie-Antoinette Ardelouze, was French, and though she went on to a brief second marriage, Vadim was one of those Paris children who basically had to grow up on his own and quickly, which he did. At a precocious age he would become a journalist and screenwriter in Paris, and his deepest ambition was to be an accomplished film director. What this young man on the make required was a vehicle, and he was soon to acquire her.
When Vadim came upon the fateful Elle and its cover face, he was living at the Paris flat of the actress Daniele Delorme and her actor husband Daniel Gélin, for whom he also babysat. One day their three-year-old son wanted his sitter to make a paper airplane, so Vadim thought he would take the most recent issue of Elle and rip out a page. While doing so, he encountered Brigitte’s photo and began staring raptly at it—the little boy waiting meanwhile for his airplane. Vadim was then an assistant to the tasteful film director Marc Allégret, who was about to film a Vadim script, and excitedly, he showed Allégret the photo. Impressed, Allégret agreed to a screen test for the young girl, with Vadim somehow obtaining her home address and sending her a letter to that effect. Allégret was a great locator of talent, including such unknowns as Jean-Paul Belmondo, but predictably, both Toty and Pilou put their bourgeois feet down: no daughter of theirs was going to enter this cinematic demi-monde thank you very much. So the screen test was definitely out.
Thankfully, Grandma Mamie and “Bourn Papa” gave full support to their granddaughter’s desperate pleas for permission to take a screen test. Bardot remembers Bourn finally dominating the discussion by smashing his fist on the table, declaring heatedly that whether his granddaughter turned out to be a whore or not wouldn’t be changed by a possible career in films. And they carried the day.
Still at an age when today’s teens are scarcely allowed to consort with adults outside of school, and when puerility is prolonged, Brigitte went to Allegret’s apartment, and there met his dark, handsome, worldly assistant. Compared to a father who would plot each kilometer of a trip and practice his jokes, Vadim seemed pleasantly relaxed and informal. Gawky Brigitte, breaking out in eczema spots under the hot lights of a screen test, did not receive Allegret’s part; but she did procure Vadim’s attention. He had written a youthful novel entitled The Wise Sophie, and somehow Brigitte seemed the closest embodiment of the fictional Sophie he had met.
For a few months he tried giving her a wide berth, knowing what a parental fortress he would have to assault for any intimacy; but then one day, having nothing else to do, he impulsively went to a cafe, phoning Brigitte from there with his last token. Her parents were blessedly away on vacation, and Vadim found unexpectedly easy entry to the inner sanctum on the Rue de la Pompe, where Mamie acted as chaperone. It was, as they say in the American song, the start of something big, and as early as age 15 Bardot would be thinking of marriage. Maman wanted BB to concentrate on preparation for her baccalaureate degree, but desperately in love, the girl found Roger’s the only education she needed. And indeed, he would give her a first taste of “Tout Paris”—bracing to a girl who had grown up with such rigid boundaries.
Her parents naturally found this suitor rather unkempt, though he was really a minor league Bohemian compared to ‘60’s hippies. The first time they had him over Toty even checked the silver when he left. The young couple met where and when they could, including at a friend’s apartment. When Bardot kept skipping classes to rendezvous with Vadim, and her father finally found out, he flew into a rage, planning to ship her off to boarding school in England, which seemed the end of the earth to her. Her tearful entreaties averted the paternal decree, but she was no longer allowed to see Roger until she was of age.
From then on Brigitte was fully in the resistance, finding opportunities to meet her man en cachette and to make love, for she had lost her virginity quite early on. Her bourgeois parents kept trying to woo her away from what they felt was a dangerous presence, fixing her up with the equivalent of country club offspring in the U.S.— fils à papa, as the French call them. On one of those boring dates Bardot returned ten minutes after midnight curfew, and an irate Pilou, pulling down the teenager’s dress, vigorously spanked her bottom. It was doubly shameful that her shocked date witnessed the spanking, and that it was her first night clad in adult stockings and garter. BB remained even more dedicated to war with her parents, and Vadim stayed on as her secret love and teacher. He even took her to meet the famed author Colette, who dubbed Brigitte a Gigi incarnate.
Since Vadim wanted to get his protegee into the film world, a probably jealous Pilou allowed an old friend of his to scoop the young screenwriter by procuring Brigitte her first bit part in a movie called “Le Trou Normand” (released in 1952). For her this first small film role was both an enjoyable and hellish experience, especially when make-up artists sadistically worked her over, telling her in essence that good treatment only arrived when one became a star.
Near the end of that shoot came the ultimate bourgeois horror of the day, something Brigitte had been fearing for a while: an unwanted first pregnancy, which she would abort on the sly, resulting in much trauma and a longer-term fear of maternity. The draining courtship continued with other vicissitudes, including one dramatic scene, where an irate Louis Bardot pulled a gun on Vadim, and another nadir, where a depressed BB turned on the gas and buried her head in an oven, barely discovered in time by her parents, who had been out looking at illuminated monuments.
But Brigitte continued making relatively unnoticed movies into the mid-’50s, until finally Vadim, along with a colorful associate, decided to create a picture that would really showcase her own interior (and exterior). That movie, And God Created Woman of 1956, co-starring Curt Jurgens and Jean-Louis Trintignant, turned out to be BB’s great breakthrough, making her a huge international star. But a putatively glamorous metier would bring this beautiful woman more problems—searing romantic breakups (after her marriage and divorce with Vadim), facilitated by long absences on location; hordes of paparazzi who helped drive her to several more suicide attempts etc. Becoming the peer of Marilyn Monroe, another sensitive femme fatale, during the late ‘50’s, and working through a decade of great change, the ‘60’s, Bardot finally gave up acting in the early 70’s, and with no regrets. Since then, she has devoted her life to what she calls “the religion of animals”—but that of course is another article. . . .