French Friday: From a France I’ve Known …

Two famous French men died, only hours away, in the first days of December.

One was nicknamed the Elvis Presley of the French.

The other was an awarded author and the Dean of the Académie française.

These two men had little or even nothing in common.

Chance is you’ve never heard of them, unless you’re French or francophone or a really big Francophile.

And yet they leave a mark on the French collective.

Including mine, even though they have also little or nothing in common with me.


Johnny Hallyday, born Jean-Philippe Smet in 1943 to a Belgian father and a French mother, was meant to spend most of his life on stage. His mother was a model fitting and his father an actor, singer and dancer. Since his father left when he was only a child and his mother worked fulltime, Jean-Philippe spent a great deal of time with a beloved aunt and his two cousins, moving at an early age to London where the girls pursued a dual dance career. One of them will marry Lee Halliday, an American dancer who will quickly call Jean-Philippe Johnny. Johnny adored this man and took his last name, which he will keep as his stage name. A printing mistake on a record will transform the letter I in Y.

Johnny Hallyday was born.

His musical career didn’t take off immediately. Like for so many other singers of that period of time,  Johnny’s success will materialize in the 1960s when he decides to become a rocker. Thanks to Lee Halliday who receives American records directly from the USA through his family, Johnny is exposed to American music, still unavailable to the French. He will in fact record a complete album in English, in Nashville in 1962, a never heard of for a French singer.

With a career spanning over half a century, Johnny Hallyday could only be at some point the backdrop of my French life.

Was I a fan? No. But his songs played on the radio when my mother sewed and he was one of the most coveted television’s guests too. With a voice, a face, a presence Johnny Hallyday was inevitable and a genuine component of the popular French culture.

Although I favored British and American rock, Johnny Hallyday, often only called Johnny, had many female fans. I remember of a few girls who bought each and every of his records and clipped his photo from the fan magazine Salut les Copains, which I didn’t buy either.

For valid reasons Johnny was often compared to Elvis Presley. His public demonstrated similar adoration and his female fans also shrieked and fainted whenever he appeared on stage. In return, Johnny was also very loyal to his fans and even threw free concerts, as he did on Bastille Day in 2000 and 2009.

I suppose that Johnny’s fans were hit as hard when he died than the people of Memphis and Elvis’s fans across America when The King died.

Unlike Elvis, though, Johnny is little known away from France. He’s in fact sometimes called the only rocker nobody heard about.

Although his casket was carried along the Champs Elysées as it is for a national French figure, Johnny won’t be buried in his hometown like Elvis but on the idyllic island of St. Bart, where he owned a stunning villa.

This last note leaves many of Johnny’s fans disappointed. Most will hardly afford to stay on the most exclusive French Antilles islands to pay their respect to the man who’s been called an Everyday Man.

I never owned a Johnny’s record or a CD, but look what I found at home!

Back from 1986, only a matter of time before the owner of this single – 45 tours in French – and me shared a common Parisian flat. I suppose that Johnny’s fan base is more eclectic than I thought 🙂





Jean d’Ormesson was born Count Jean Bruno Wladimir François-de-Paule le Fèvre d’Ormesson in 1925.  No wonder he was called Jean d’O.

I’ve never been a fan of aristocrats, no doubt due to my working class upbringing 🙂

That said, Jean d’Ormesson leaves behind him an extensive body of literature, recently gathered in the prestigious La Pléiade Collection.

He was also for a while the youngest member of the Académie française, the preeminent French council for matters relevant to the French language and died as the Dean. A while back, I wrote a post about the hot debate related to the evolution of the French spelling and grammar and included the public announcement from the Académie – unanimously opposed to the changes that attempt to bring more gender equality. Jean d’Ormesson was also against this evolution, although he admitted that the French language, once dominent, had lost its power as France and Europe had lost theirs. He didn’t weep on that loss, though, since he believed in the natural changes due to time.

As I wrote my post last month, I was reminded that the Académie française has currently only four women on board for forty seats. Jean d’Ormesson is the one who brought the first woman to the Académie in 1981. He did so against the Gallic dismissive comments of his male colleagues who mocked Marguerite Yourcenar’s real gender since she was gay. According to Jean d’Ormesson, he rejoiced to finally pronounce a word so incredible and prodigiously so singular: Madame.

So, even though, d’Ormesson also directed the newspaper Le Figaro for many years, with a readership leaning more toward the right than the left, I remember him for this decisive step.

He was also a very educated, witty man who spoke like no one else. Even his enunciation, so articulate, was unique. No doubt born in a world where so few French came from. His piercing blue eyes were filled with genuine joy and humor. A favorite on French television his presence elevated any conversation.

And he left us with so many admirable sentences! I only select one that I prefer in French for its beautiful rhythm and that I humbly translate below, totally aware that I will never equal the eloquence of Jean D’O.

“Tant qu’il y aura des livres, des gens pour en écrire et des gens pour en lire, tout ne sera pas perdu dans ce monde qu’en dépit de ses tristesses et de ses horreurs nous avons tant aimé ».

As long as there will be books, people to write them and people to read them, not everything will be lost in this world that we have loved so dearly, despite its sorrows and horrors.

Re-reading the sentence I would say the same about music.

And maybe this is also what Johnny’s fans felt when he sang.



A last humorous note about Jean d’O. He’s credited for saying once that dying on the day a star dies is terrible. No doubt, Jean d’Ormesson’s death has been somewhat eclipsed by Johnny Hallyday’s.

These two French men could not have been more different. Their public and readers had probably not much in common either. At his death one received popular homage, the other national homage.

In their own way they incarnated my native France.

With them gone, another page is turned.


















  1. Très bel article 🙂 merci pour ces histoires croisées

  2. Sisyphus47 says:

    Une belle évocation, deux hommes, une culture? 🙂

  3. judithworks says:

    Many is the time I’ve watched Johnny and his adoring crowds – like Elvis I never could understand. But as you say, who am I to judge.

  4. Thanks for introducing these two men Evelyne. It’s strange when those who have entertained you all your life die, because it shows how much time is passing.

  5. And yet I’ll bet their (very different) fans mourned equally.

  6. Very interesting article; I learned a lot about these two men from you! et j’adore la citation de Jean d’Ormesson. Je la trouve tout vraie. Vous avez raison, c’est également pour la musique ! Il

  7. Loved these stories, especially Jeand’O …his words about books sang to me, of course, but I as loved that he was a champion of Marguerite Yourcenar whose books I have and admire, including a lovely one about her home in America … as I re-read her book on the Emperor Hadrian, I know she believed in re-incarnation, and what she writes rings with the conviction that this was a former life…

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