Back in what is now called the Golden Era of American movies, I grew up in Hollywood. More specifically, Beverly Hills. My father, S. Sylvan Simon, was a director/producer at M.G.M. and Columbia Pictures; he died when I was 12. My mother, Harriet, then married Armand Deutsch, was a producer at M.G.M. So access to ‘movie stars’ was easily available during my childhood. Yet when I fell madly, passionately in love with an outrageously handsome Frenchman named Louis Jourdan, it was only his suave, self-assured screen image that enticed me. Read on…
Louis Jourdan and his wife, Quique, were popular members of my parents’ social set. He’d starred in two movies directed by our Romanian next-door neighbor, Jean Negulesco – “Three Coins in the Fountain” and “The Best of Everything.” But his primary claim-to-fame among his friends was as a sought-after croquet player in the highly competitive weekend games held at Darryl F. Zanuck’s rambling Palm Springs estate – nicknamed The Palm Springs Yacht Club – along with Joseph Cotton, Douglas Fairbanks. Jr., Moss Hart, David Niven, William Powell, Clifton Webb, Tyrone Power and the loquacious Russian director Gregory Ratoff.
I knew all the others, but I never met Louis Jourdan – quite deliberately. When I would find out that the Jourdans were expected for dinner, I’d discreetly arrange to be out of the house, usually on an overnight with a chum. Why? I simply could not face him.
Somehow – even in my tender adolescent years – I realized that the Louis Jourdan who was a guest in my parents’ home could not possibly be the dashing, fantasy figure who had so mesmerized me on the silver screen.
I had just entered adolescence when I first saw him in “Bird of Paradise” (1951), as a Frenchman who comes to a Polynesian island with a returning native (Jeff Chandler) and falls in love with the chief’s daughter (Debra Paget), much to the consternation of the Kahuna, the influential witch doctor (Maurice Schwartz, one of the great actors of the Yiddish stage). Then a volcano erupts and Paget feels impelled to throw herself into its molten lava as appeasement. Looking back on it now, I realize how ridiculously cliché-ridden it was, but I was transported to exotic Polynesia and dazzled by Louis Jourdan’s lean physique in a loincloth. It was a full-blown crush and my sexual awakening.
That same year, I saw him in “Anne of the Indies,” a romantic action/adventure that starred Jean Peters (before she married Howard Hughes) as Anne Providence, a role based on the pirate Anne Bonny. Louis Jourdan was a Frenchman captured by the British whom Peters saves from walking the plank. They travel to an island where they must confront Captain Blackbeard (Thomas Gomez). Watching it at least six times, I was transfixed.
Then he starred in “The Happy Time” (1952), directed by Richard Fleischer and based on Samuel A. Taylor’s Broadway play. What brought this even closer to home was that – under the name Susan Stevens – I had a small part in a Margaret O’Brien movie, “Her First Romance,” in which she co-starred with Allen Martin Jr., who had played the young boy’s role in “The Happy Time” on Broadway.
“Three Coins in the Fountain” (1954), the film that introduced the no-classic song, told the story of three Americans (Dorothy McGuire, Jean Peters, Maggie McNamara) looking for romance in Rome. It was nominated for Best Picture and won an Oscar for Best Cinematography, Color and Music – but I focused only on Louis Jourdan.
Teenagers frequently have crushes on actors or musicians; it’s not uncommon for them to have posters hanging in their bedrooms or in their school lockers. For most, however, there’s very little chance that they will ever have any direct communication with the focus of their desires – but I took great pains to make sure I avoided mine.
Then came “The Swan” (1956), his romantic comedy with Grace Kelly, and, of course, “Gigi” (1958), which earned nine Academy Awards, including Best Picture. By this time, I got married and my fantasies drifted elsewhere.
Years later, when I was hosting a celebrity interview show on WTNH-TV, the New Haven, Connecticut, ABC affiliate, my producer arranged for me to interview Louis Jourdan, who was rehearsing for an appearance at the Westport Country Playhouse in “13 Rue de L’Amour” by George Feydeau. And when he realized who my parents were, Mr. Jourdan graciously invited me and my husband to join him for dinner.
Reluctantly, I agreed.
Louis Jourdan was witty and smart, a charming conversationalist. He was modest about his achievements during his long career and ready with amusing anecdotes about his great 1958 musical hit “Gigi,” particularly fellow Frenchman Maurice Chevalier. Based on a novel by Collette, “Gigi” is the story of a young Parisian girl (Leslie Caron) being groomed as a courtesan for wealthy Gaston Lachaille (Jourdan) – until he realizes he’s actually in love with her.
“I could never understand why all the success of that picture went to that old man when Gigi and Gaston were the central characters,” Jourdan said. Off-screen, he added, Chevalier was no bon vivant. Instead, “He annoyed me no end; he was obsessed with himself.”
So when my husband and I got into our car later to drive home, it was absolutely bewildering to him why I burst into tears. Sobbing, I tried to explain – but words failed me. My bubble had burst! My lifetime romantic fantasy was crushed. Louis Jourdan was not longer a fantasy figure. He was a real man. And I thought my heart would break.
Rest in peace, my reel love.