My 78-year-old mother grew up in Detroit being told by her father which famous people should be faulted for their ignominious behavior during the Holocaust. High on his list of Nazi collaborators was French actor Maurice Chevalier, star of such movie musicals as Love Me Tonight and The Merry Widow (before the war) and Gigi and Can-Can (after the war).

Every time Chevalier appeared on television, my grandfather would make a disparaging remark. He didn’t go into details, but made it clear to his children that Chevalier had been a traitor to the French during WWII, a belief that was fairly widely held at the time among American Jews. As a result, my mother says, she could never really enjoy Chevalier’s talents.

This is why she was so shocked when I recently found evidence that Chevalier, whom my mother had always viewed as a collaborator, turned out to have risked his life and reputation to save Jews—including a cousin that she had never known about.

*

My mother had long thought that all of our relatives still in Europe at the advent of WWII had perished in the Holocaust. But thanks to a DNA test and the fortuitous discovery last year of a cassette containing a 1987 interview with a great aunt, I learned that I’m related on my mother’s side of the family to impresario Mitty Goldin, who owned the famed ABC Theatre in Paris. The recording revealed that my great-grandfather had an older brother who stayed behind in Romania when his three brothers immigrated to North America in the early 1900s, and that Mitty was his son.

Goldin was born in 1895 in Focsani, Romania, back when about one-quarter of the town’s population was Jewish. In 1916, he deserted from the Romanian army, and two years later he arrived in Paris, apparently penniless. A self-taught musician, Goldin composed songs, played piano, and sang in several bands before starting his own artistic agency. In 1934, he bought and refurbished a Paris venue on the verge of bankruptcy and renamed it the ABC Theatre (so it would appear first in the phone book).

Goldin had an uncanny knack for producing hit shows at his music hall, often featuring several high-profile acts on the same bill. One exception was the time he reluctantly agreed to put a petite unknown singer at the bottom of the bill—a story that’s in every biography of Edith Piaf. Always elegantly dressed and usually with a cigar in hand, Goldin also served as artistic director of other Parisian venues such as the Bobino, Mogador, and Capucines.

Learning that we were related to someone once so renowned—Goldin was regularly reported on in Variety and Billboard as well as the European press—has been astounding for my mom and me. The photos and one video of him I’ve found online remind my mother of her father, who would have been first cousins with Goldin.

It’s been fascinating trying to piece Goldin’s life together, but for a long time there was one key part of his story that was missing: What had happened to him during WWII?

I asked Marilena Lica-Masala, a Romanian-born Frenchwoman whose research is responsible for much of Goldin’s Wikipedia page, but all she knew was that he was forced into exile in 1940. The only clue I could find was a February 1941 Billboard article about the Paris arts scene that noted Goldin and his American business partner were “outside German military lines” during the war.

I eventually hit the jackpot searching the archives of Newspapers.com. A March 8, 1947, article in the New York Daily News reported that Maurice Chevalier “hid and protected Mitty Goldin, Romanian-born owner of the ABC Theatre in Paris, on whose head there was a price by the Germans.”

French singer Edith Piaf and Mitty Goldin in 1937. (Photo: Photo 12/Alamy)

It was incredible that I recognized the name of my cousin’s famous protector. Unlike my mother, I wasn’t aware of the accusations of treachery surrounding Chevalier that the Daily News article was trying to rectify; the only stench I associated with the man who sang “Thank Heaven for Little Girls” was my common-but-mistaken impression that the Looney Tunes character Pepé Le Pew was based on him.

But others, including my mother, had long believed that Chevalier had betrayed his country by performing for German audiences and willingly serving Nazi propaganda.

*

After receiving two Oscar nominations and becoming one of the top-paid actors in Hollywood, Chevalier had returned in the mid-1930s to Paris, where he performed regularly at music halls such as the ABC. He and Goldin may have first met through legendary French performer Mistinguett; Goldin had managed at least one tour of Europe for her, and Chevalier years earlier had been her dance partner and live-in lover. For a time, Chevalier rented out his large apartment on the prestigious Boulevard de Courcelles to Goldin, who may have played a role in Chevalier meeting his second wife, Romanian Jewish actress and dancer Nita Raya.

Chevalier was dining with the Duke and Duchess of Windsor in the south of France on June 10, 1940, when they heard the news that Italy had declared war on France and Britain. Chevalier rushed off without finishing his lunch; he knew that with German troops only a few miles from Paris, France would soon fall, putting his wife and their friends in mortal danger.

A month later, Chevalier and his entourage—which presumably included Goldin—made their way to Chevalier’s villa in the La Bocca neighborhood of Cannes, in the French “free zone.” Vichy France, while technically unoccupied by Germany, tended to do its bidding, which meant that it was not such a safe haven for Jews, especially non-French Jews.

The Nazis saw propaganda value in promoting French culture. While it’s unclear if the Nazis knew of Goldin’s whereabouts specifically, they knew that Chevalier was harboring several Jews, including his in-laws, and used this as a leverage to get him to perform. He declined most offers, but agreed to perform in 1941 at Altengrabow prison camp in Germany, where he had been confined during WWI, in exchange for the release of 10 French prisoners. The Nazi publicity machine made it seem that Chevalier had toured Germany, which is how he ended up being labeled a collaborator by the French Resistance.

Mostly, Chevalier feigned sickness to avoid other performances and spent much of his time at La Bocca. I assume Goldin was there the whole time, having gone from being on top of the world to being forced underground, a marked man. But I wish I knew for sure, as the 1947 Daily News article is the only source of information I’ve found about who helped him survive the war.

The winters of 1941 and 1942 were unusually frigid in the south of France, but a reprieve came in November 1942 when their region got added to the Italian Occupation Zone; the Italian government had little interest in rounding up Jews.

Unfortunately, when Italy quit the war in September 1943, Germany invaded the area and made mass arrests of Jews. The increasing danger prompted Chevalier in the spring of 1944 to move his wife and in-laws as well as others to the Dordogne region in rural southwestern France. After the liberation of Paris, French authorities arrested Chevalier and informed him that he had been sentenced to death in absentia. He was quickly exonerated based on his testimony and that of others.

It doesn’t seem that Goldin went with Chevalier to Dordogne, because he isn’t among the names mentioned as hiding there with Chevalier. It could be because he may have had at least one other well-connected helper.

The American business partner named in the 1941 Billboard article about Goldin being outside German lines (aka Vichy France) was Harry Saltzman, co-producer of the first nine James Bond films and at the time, as revealed in 2012, a U.S. spy.

Saltzman had the means, including special travel documents under the guise of being a film distributor, to aid Goldin, yet I may never have proof. Steven Saltzman, Harry’s son, told me that the documents released by the U.S. State Department are heavily redacted, and he suspects that his father’s role in spying on Vichy France and Charles de Gaulle is too politically sensitive to ever be declassified.

The French government returned the ABC Theatre to Goldin a few months before Chevalier made his triumphant return to the Parisian stage in 1945 at the ABC, something that the two men may have fantasized about during the darkest days of the war. Chevalier’s reputation had been quickly restored in the French press, but the English-speaking media—and those who consumed it, including my grandfather and many American Jews—remained suspicious of Chevalier for a long time. According to biographer David Bret, “The fact that he had signed the Stockholm Peace Petition had caused Senator McCarthy and his council to brand him as a Communist.” Chevalier was denied a visa to the U.S. in 1951, and wouldn’t tour the country again until a decade after WWII ended—even though his career had already been rehabilitated in Europe.

Goldin resumed his successful career after the war, but the years in hiding had taken a toll on his health. After some illnesses, he died of a stroke in 1956 at age 61. His death reportedly was a big deal at the time, but according to Lica-Masala he is surprisingly a largely forgotten figure these days in France and Romania.

It could have something to with the ephemeral nature of his work: In September 1938, he organized 40 Parisian theater owners in a protest against live theater radio broadcasts—and once audiences weren’t able to anticipate his next production, he faded into a bygone era. It probably didn’t help that he had to spend four of his prime years in hiding. Lica-Masala wonders if Goldin’s WWI desertion from the Romanian army had come back to haunt him, which would be ironic given the tainted reputation of his WWII rescuer.

In Marcel Ophüls’ 1971 documentary, The Sorrow and the Pity, about collaboration and its complexity in Vichy France, the lighthearted music of Maurice Chevalier serves as a soundtrack and the film concludes with a 1944 newsreel clip of him denying that he had collaborated with Germany. It’s meant to be damning, but clearly it doesn’t tell the whole story.

In 2016, Alexis Chevalier attempted to convey the dilemma facing his great-uncle in a stage play, Defendant Maurice Chevalier, but I don’t believe there was a mention of Mitty Goldin. Hopefully, someday I’ll be able to learn the full survival tale of my grandfather’s first cousin. If I had known earlier about this remarkable chapter in my family’s history, I could have contacted Nita Raya, who died in 2015 at age 99 (she and Chevalier divorced in 1946), about their years in hiding.

My mother says that not finding out until recently about our famous relative “is the worst hole in my life.” She says that her father, who loved showbiz, would surely have taken the family to Paris to meet Goldin. Now, when my mother thinks of my grandfather’s list of famous people reputed to be collaborators, she dearly wishes that he had lived long enough to cross off Chevalier’s name.

***

Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.





PRINT COMMENT