Très bel article consacré à Serge, Charlotte ouvre les portes du 5, rue Verneuil
Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg on the set of the movie Slogan, June 1968. By Gilles Caron/Contact Press Images.
Sixteen years after Serge Gainsbourg’s death, his small, graffiti-covered Paris house is almost exactly as he left it—crammed with mementos of his poetic, nicotine-and-alcohol-fueled, sometimes scandalous life as France’s most adored singer-songwriter, lover of Jane Birkin and Brigitte Bardot, and friend to countless taxi drivers and policemen. His daughter, the singer and movie star Charlotte Gainsbourg, gives V.F. an exclusive tour of the idol’s retreat.
by Lisa Robinson November 2007
Paris, May 23, 2007: Carefully avoiding eye contact with the tourists in the street, Charlotte Gainsbourg quickly lets me into the small, graffiti-covered house at 5 bis Rue de Verneuil. Two blocks from Boulevard Saint-Germain in the Seventh Arrondissement, the house is where her father, Serge Gainsbourg, lived and, on March 2, 1991, died at the age of 62. In the days following his death, France went into mourning, fans crowded the tiny street singing his songs, and the women closest to him sat in his bedroom with his body for four days because Charlotte didn’t want to let him go. For 16 years this house has been shuttered and locked, with only the housekeeper or occasional family member allowed inside. Charlotte, an actress and a huge star in France, is now the owner of the house and wants, with the help of architect Jean Nouvel, to turn it into a museum. For the first time since Serge Gainsbourg’s death, she has agreed to reveal the private world of France’s most beloved and important songwriter.
Except for two pianos which have been removed, the house remains exactly the way it was on the day he died. The walls are covered with black fabric. The floor of the main drawing room is black and white marble. « Cluttered » is an understatement, but each thing is precisely in the place that Serge put it—and there are hundreds of things. Every surface is covered with ashtrays, photographs, and collections: toy monkeys, medals from various branches of the armed services, cameras, guns, bullets, police badges from all over France, pictures of the women who sang his songs—Brigitte Bardot, Anna Karina, Petula Clark, Juliette Gréco, Catherine Deneuve, Isabelle Adjani, Marianne Faithfull, Françoise Hardy, Vanessa Paradis—and, most prominently, his lover of 13 years and Charlotte’s mother, the British actress Jane Birkin. There is a larger-than-life-size poster of international sex kitten Bardot, whom Serge first met on the set of a movie in 1959. Later, they carried on a clandestine affair while she was married to playboy Gunther Sachs, and recorded the steamy duet, written by Gainsbourg, « Je T’Aime … Moi Non Plus. » Framed gold records—for albums featuring songs such as « La Javanaise, » « Ballade de Melody Nelson, » and « Love on the Beat »—are on the walls and the mantel above the fireplace. There is a bronze sculpture of a headless nude that Charlotte tells me was modeled on her mother, a statue of the Man with a Cabbage Head (the title of one of Gainsbourg’s greatest albums), Gainsbourg puppet dolls, tape recorders, a black lacquered bar with a cocktail shaker and glasses, a Jimi Hendrix cassette, framed newspaper stories, and empty red jewelry boxes from Cartier— »He loved the boxes, » says Charlotte. There are photos of Serge with Ray Charles, with Dirk Bogarde, with his last girlfriend, Bambou, and their son, Lulu. The small kitchen at the back of the first floor has a 15-inch black-and-white television set, candy bars and two cans of tomato juice in the refrigerator, opened wine bottles, and, in the cupboard, cans of food from 1991—except, says Charlotte, « the ones that exploded. »
Upstairs, on the second floor, in Serge’s skylit study, there is an IBM electric typewriter even though he never typed, books about Chopin, Jean-Paul Belmondo, Fra Angelico, and Velázquez, and a copy of Robinson Crusoe. Photos of Marilyn Monroe line the dark, narrow hallway, including one of the star dead, in the morgue. There is the room Jane Birkin called her « boudoir » and what Serge called « La Chambre de Poupée » (the doll room) after Jane left him, in 1980. The bathroom has a very low bathtub, modeled after one Serge saw in Salvador Dalí’s apartment, and bottles of Guerlain, Roger & Gallet colognes, and soap from Santa Maria Novella. His toothbrush is still there. The master bedroom has blackout curtains, a mirrored wall, and twin gold female heads with pearls around their necks at the foot of the black, mink-covered double bed. Chewing gum and mints are next to the bed, and on the bed are dried flowers that have been there since he died. In the large hallway closet: his white Repetto jazz shoes, ties, and pin-striped suits. The house is a shrine, but it’s not creepy, and one can imagine how stylish, even decadent this all must have seemed in 1970 when Serge and Jane moved into what was their family home and later would become the solitary lair of Gainsbourg—singer, songwriter, musician, painter, actor, director, smoker, alcoholic, romantic, ladies’ man, and revered national figure.
The second-floor hallway of Serge Gainsbourg’s house, at 5 bis Rue de Verneuil, 16 years after his death. Photograph by Jean-Baptiste Mondino.
The Carlyle Hotel, New York City, May 3, 2007: « He was a poet, » says Charlotte, 36, sitting on the floor of an enormous suite, talking in depth about her father for the first time since his death. She is wearing her usual outfit of jeans and T-shirt, is barefoot, and smokes a lot. « What he did was way ahead of its time. You can just read his lyrics—he plays with words in such a way that there are double meanings that don’t work out in English. He was just so very authentic. He was so shy, and very touching. And he was very generous. Every time I get into a taxi [in Paris] I hear a story about my father, because he used to take taxis all day long and [the drivers] tell me how sweet he was. One day a taxi driver told me my father had paid for his teeth to be mended; somebody else’s roof needed to be mended and he paid for that. He just had real relationships with people from the street. He was selfish in ways that artists can be, but there was no snobisme. He was always amazed at the fact that he had money. I remember going to lovely hotels with him and he was like … ‘Oooh, how fun this is.’ He had the eyes of a child. »
At home they listened to—among others—Elvis Presley, Ray Charles, and Bob Dylan: « He told me to buy ‘Lay Lady Lay,' » says Charlotte (who now stars as Dylan’s wife in the Todd Haynes movie I’m Not There). He loved Cole Porter and Noël Coward. He embraced rock, saying he wanted to write in a modern context. He preferred the earthier voice of French singer Fréhel to the more showbizzy Edith Piaf. Classically trained, he was influenced by cabaret, modern jazz, African rhythms, Surrealist poetry, and reggae—all of which he utilized to elevate songwriting with his extraordinary body of work: more than 550 songs and 30 albums, numerous movie scores, countless TV commercials and Scopitones (short music films).
« Manners were very important to him, » Charlotte says. « Eating a certain way with our hands on the table. He was quite strict. » So strict that she and her half-sister Kate (Jane Birkin’s daughter with her first husband, British composer John Barry) were not allowed to play with toys in the main drawing room or move anything in the house; he would know if you moved one thing one inch. Charlotte went everywhere with her parents, even to nightclubs when, she says, she was so little « I was in a basket. »
In the masses of books and newspaper articles and magazine stories written about Serge Gainsbourg during his lifetime and after his death, he has been described as debauched, irreverent, misanthropic, crude, dissolute, provocateur, genius, alcoholic, poet, national treasure, a romantic who handled language with cynical humor, and a modern-day Baudelaire and Rimbaud. Charlotte says, « I heard monstrosities about him growing up. That he was a drug addict, which he wasn’t—he was an alcoholic and a great smoker, but no drugs. That my mother was a whore because she posed naked on magazine covers. » When Charlotte was 13, she recorded « Lemon Incest, » a duet with her father that included the lyric « the love that we will never make, » and, according to Charlotte, Jane, and friends of Serge’s, it was a « pure love song from a father to a daughter. » But it shocked the nation, especially when the two of them showed up in the video on a bed together—she in panties and a shirt, he shirtless, wearing jeans. Charlotte says she loved doing the song with him— »although I look at it now and I see how uncomfortable I look in the video, like a robot. » She knew then what the subject was, she knew he liked to shock people, and, she admits, so does she, but she feels the « scandal » was overblown. Other scandals—his reggae version of « La Marseillaise, » telling the 23-year-old Whitney Houston on live television that he wanted to « fuck her » (currently on YouTube), or, also on live TV, burning a 500-franc note (illegal in France) to prove how much money he had left after taxes—Charlotte found amusing. « But after he burned the money on TV, I was doing my homework in school the next day and big bullies came in, took my work, and burned it. »
Serge Gainsbourg was born Lucien Ginsburg in Paris in 1928. His older sister, Jacqueline Ginsburg, 81, still lives in the apartment on Avenue Bugeaud she lived in with her brother, his twin sister, Liliane, and their parents, who escaped czarist Russia in 1919. (When he started writing songs and performing in clubs, Lucien Ginsburg changed his name to Serge Gainsbourg because, says Jane Birkin, he wanted something more punchy and artistic and « ‘Lucien’ reminded him of a gentleman’s hairdresser. ») Jacqueline’s living room still has the piano Serge used for rehearsals with the women he wrote songs for, and she proudly shows off pictures of him, books about him, and boxed sets of his recordings. In 1940, in Nazi-occupied Paris, the Ginsburgs were forced to declare themselves Jews and, in 1942, wear the yellow star. « But, » says Jacqueline, « my mother would sew them on our coats in such a way that we were able to cover them up. » Eventually the family went—with false papers—to Limoges, where they managed to survive until the end of the war, when they returned to Paris. Their father was a classically trained musician who earned his living playing piano in cabarets and casinos, and all three children learned to play piano. « Even though we didn’t have many things, » says Jacqueline, « we were raised in a culture of beauty. Painting, music, literature—that was all very important in our house. And the avant-garde—in addition to Chopin we heard Stravinsky and Ravel. » Serge, who had big ears that stuck out and who was considered ugly, often said he wished he had looked like the American movie actor Robert Taylor, but also said, « I prefer ugliness to beauty, because ugliness endures. » He started to smoke and drink at 20, when he went into the army. His sister says his cynical persona was always a defense: « When you feel weak, you attack. » He showed talent as a painter and attended the Académie des Beaux-Arts, but eventually realized he had to earn a living, and said he « had fear of the painter’s bohemian life. » Like his father, he played piano in clubs, then branched out to write songs. He won the 1965 Eurovision contest with a song he wrote for the cutesy pop star France Gall; he then wrote a sexually sly song for her, which she thought was about sucking lollipops. He started to write successful songs for others and then, later, himself. He wrote and directed 4 movies and acted in 29. He became really famous at 40 with the orgasmic « Je T’Aime … Moi Non Plus, » then even more so with songs that ranged from lush and romantic melodies to Surrealist poetry to caustic and dark concept albums. He used American words in his songs— »blue jeans, » « flashback, » « jukebox »—and studied the Ford Motor Company catalogue for phrases to use in his song « Ford Mustang. » He saw his family every Sunday for dinner and remained close to his parents until they died. Jacqueline recalls his love affair with Bardot after his first two marriages (his second produced two children, Natacha and Paul) ended in divorce. « He was proud to be with the most beautiful woman in the world, » she says, and his family was not at all shocked by « Je T’Aime … Moi Non Plus »—they loved everything he did unconditionally. When Bardot begged him not to release their original version because Gunther Sachs was furious, Serge re-did the song with Jane, in 1969, and it became a No. 1 hit. « We were so happy when the Vatican banned it, » says Jacqueline, « because it meant more publicity. »
Paris, May 24, 2007: Jane Birkin, 60, is Pilates-toned and appears to have the same boyish body she had when American audiences first saw her, in a brief nude scene in Antonioni’s 1966 film, Blow-Up. Since that time, she has acted in 68 movies, recorded more than 20 albums, received an Order of the British Empire, had a third daughter—the now 25-year-old actress Lou Doillon (with French director Jacques Doillon, the man she left Serge for)—and is a political activist. Her 13-year affair with Serge Gainsbourg was a grand, passionate amour. Along with Charlotte, she guards his legacy; Serge left her a percentage of his song publishing, and she has performed those songs in concert halls all over the world. Her apartment, on the Rue Jacob, is a worldly display of exotic bohemianism. Paisley-covered walls are adorned with hundreds of framed photos of Serge, Jacques, Charlotte, Kate, Lou, Jane’s grandchildren, their drawings, Charlotte’s movie posters, and Serge’s handwritten song lyrics. Stuffed rabbits wearing pearl necklaces are grouped on a table playing cards. There is a collection of majolica pottery, a huge flat-screen TV, and everywhere you look, there are books—lining the shelves in her bedroom and study. And although originally designed by her and named for her, that Hermès Birkin bag is nowhere to be seen. This apartment and the Rue de Verneuil house, five blocks away, are not the « art-directed » palaces that pass for bohemian in today’s shelter magazines; this is the real thing. She makes me the best cup of coffee I’ve had in Paris, and in between bites of steak tartare washed down with Evian water, she talks nonstop about Serge. She has a tendency to not draw breath, and goes off on flights of fancy, but she is wildly entertaining and quite clear about the man who for 13 years and beyond dominated her life.
They met when he was 40 and she was 22, on the set of the 1969 movie Slogan. Wanting to get to know him better, and upset by his dismissive attitude, she orchestrated a dinner with him and the film’s director. After dinner, she and Serge danced, and when he stepped on her toes, she realized that this man she thought arrogant was really very shy. That first night, he took her to a transvestite bar, then a club where the American blues singer Joe Turner sang, then to a Russian nightclub, and then to the Hilton Hotel, where the desk clerk asked, « Your usual room, Mr. Gainsbourg? » Nothing sexual happened that night, because he fell asleep, but very quickly they became inseparable. They went to Venice, stayed in a corner suite in the Gritti Palace, drank at Harry’s Bar every night, and fell madly in love. When they first returned to Paris they stayed at L’Hôtel, where Oscar Wilde had died. They then moved to Rue de Verneuil, where Serge selected every piece of furniture and designed everything in the house. « Serge had seen Dalí’s house and was very struck by the fact that he had black astrakhan on the walls, » says Jane. « So Serge wanted black on his walls, but he wanted it to be felt, the special felt that was used for policemen’s trousers. He could never take any change. After I had Charlotte, when she got so big that her legs came out of the crib I said, ‘I must buy her a bed, Serge, without offending your eye,’ and he said, ‘Put socks on her.’ I never saw him take a bath. He was the cleanest man I ever knew, he knew how to wash all the bits, but in 13 years I never saw him take a bath, I never saw him go to the loo, I never saw him completely naked, the children never saw him naked—and they tried like mad. He was very pudique. » (The closest translation of this word in English is shy, modest, discreet.) « If he had seen me giving birth to Charlotte, it’s possible he never would have slept with me again, and I wasn’t taking that chance. He always paid his taxes early: he felt he was an immigrant—his parents were from Russia and as such he should behave correctly. He wanted shoes that felt like gloves, so I got him white Repetto ballet shoes, which he wore without socks. I bought him jewelry and encouraged him to keep a three-day stubble on his face. He sat in gilt chairs after fashion shows and picked out dresses for me—Balenciaga, Yves Saint Laurent, Givenchy. Every New Year’s Eve we would go to Maxim’s and he would liken it to being on the Titanic because everyone was so much older, and I would nick the ashtrays and the cutlery. »
Jane Birkin and her daughter Charlotte Gainsbourg in Paris. Photograph by Jean-Baptiste Mondino.
He was jealous and so was she. When Jane made a movie with Bardot and the director was Bardot’s first husband, Roger Vadim, Serge was jealous of Vadim, but, says Jane, « I was much more intrigued by Bardot. I wanted to see every portion of her body to see if she was as beautiful as I thought she was, and she is. Checked from head to toe by me. There’s not one fault in the woman. » Contrary to rumors, Jane and Serge never did marry. « He said in France I’d need to be fingerprinted and have a blood sample, » Jane says, « and I was slightly offended and said, ‘What on earth for?’ I also had a secret fear that marriage changed things, and so, in fact, we weren’t. » (Charlotte is superstitious, too; she lives with actor-director Yvan Attal and their two children but remains unmarried.) After Serge and Jane made a movie in Yugoslavia, he bought a Rolls-Royce with cash because « it tickled him to think he was buying a Rolls with Communist money, » she says. It was racing green, he had no driver’s license (he said, « You cannot drink and drive and I have chosen »), and after using the vehicle a few times to have someone drive them up and down the Rue Faubourg Saint-Honoré and go to a party at the Rothschilds, he put it in a garage, where he would occasionally visit it, sit inside, and have a smoke. When he drank champagne, he drank only Krug, but he also drank mint juleps, Gibson cocktails, and liqueurs; he’d sit at the bar of the Hôtel Ritz or the Hôtel Raphael and work his way through all the different colors. « He always said if he gave up smoking he might live longer, but it might seem like an awful long time, » says Jane, « and what a bore. »
In 1973 he had the first of two heart attacks. « When they carried him out of the Rue de Verneuil to go to the American Hospital, he insisted on taking his Hermès blanket because he didn’t like the one they had on the stretcher and he also grabbed two cartons of Gitanes. » It wasn’t permissible to smoke in the hospital, so, says Jane, « he asked me to bring him some Old Spice deodorant for men. I thought, Well, he’s getting very particular about things, but in fact he was trying to camouflage the fact that he was smoking like a chimney. And when he left the hospital they pulled the bedside drawers open and there were all these little medicine bottles filled with water and cigarette butts. » (According to Jane, Serge bought the papers every day and loved when he was in them, and after this heart attack he personally called a journalist from France-Soir and conducted a bedside interview at the hospital.)
Paris, May 28, 2007: French superstar singer-songwriter Françoise Hardy sits in her Zen-like apartment, on the Avenue Foch, and remembers Serge. « When he was not on alcohol, he was very nice, almost like a little boy, » she says. « And when he was drunk, he could be disagreeable … mean. Once, we were in a hotel bar and suddenly he asked me how I could stand all my husband’s infidelities. It was terrible for me to hear that. He could be very destructive. But his text was like a jewel. You can read his words just like you would read poetry. I’m not very fond of poetry in general, but I appreciate reading Serge Gainsbourg’s lyrics because of the games he plays with words, the tone of the words. He was the very best writer we had in France. »
Jane Birkin describes their daily routine in the 1970s as follows: they woke up at three in the afternoon; she picked up the children at school and took them to the park, brought them home for a children’s dinner, the au pair would give them a bath, and when the children went to bed she and Serge would kiss them good night and go out on the town. They’d come back « with the dustman, » wait until the children woke up at 7:30, then go to sleep. Their alcohol-fueled nights would often turn, as Jane puts it, « barmy. » Once, at Castel’s nightclub, on the Rue Princesse on the Left Bank, Serge turned over the basket that she carried as a handbag, emptying its contents onto the floor. Furious, she managed to find a custard pie and threw it in his face. He walked out; she whizzed by him in the street and headed straight for the river and, after she was sure he was watching, flung herself into the Seine. She was rescued by firemen, Serge was relieved she was alive, and they walked back to the Rue de Verneuil arm in arm.
Régine, the singer and nightclub owner, recalls, « I met Serge in 1953 when he was singing in a little cabaret and I was the barmaid. He was a very talented, strong personality; we had a lot in common. Very intelligent, clever, amusing, very crazy—everything what we like. He was feeling like he was not a beautiful man, but inside he was a beautiful man, and his charm was more important. And when a man like that has success, they start to have beautiful women. Serge and Bardot were in my kitchen all the time because she didn’t want to go to restaurants. She was always laughing with him, and he was thrilled to be with her, such a beautiful woman. » Serge wrote songs for Régine; he encouraged her to be more earthy and less feather-boa-showbiz. She saw him three months before he died. And how was he? « Drinking. »
Nicolas Godin and Jean-Benoit Dunckel are the fashionable French duo Air (who wrote the music for Charlotte Gainsbourg’s recent, gorgeous CD, 5:55), and they say that, just like Americans who remember where they were and what they were doing when President Kennedy was shot or when John Lennon was murdered, everyone in France remembers where they were when Serge Gainsbourg died. They also say that the title of « Je T’Aime … Moi Non Plus »—which translates as « I love you, me neither »—came from a story told about Dalí, who reportedly said, « Picasso is Spanish—me too. Picasso is a painter—me too. Picasso is a Communist—me neither. »
Jane recalls, « Serge thought it was vulgar that people said ‘I love you’ all the time. Either he didn’t believe it or because he was pudique he didn’t want to say, ‘Moi aussi.’ Or he didn’t believe the girl would really love him. [In 1969] he asked me if I wanted to sing ‘Je T’Aime … Moi Non Plus’ with him, and given that all the pretty actresses in Paris wanted to do it, I said, ‘Yes, but don’t play me Bardot’s version because I’d be embarrassed as hers was so wonderful.' » (In 1986, Bardot gave permission to release the original version to benefit her animal charities and Greenpeace. Today, Bardot says, « He was a lord, and ‘Je T’Aime … Moi Non Plus’ is a hymn to love, a unique homage for me. I only want to keep the best and forget the worst … if it’s possible. I will love him forever, me neither. »)
Serge and Jane recorded the song in London in two vocal booths at a studio near Marble Arch. « He told me to sing it higher —it gave it more of a sense of a choirboy, » she says. « In those days you only had two takes, so we did it twice and he was worried that I’d get so carried away with the heavy breathing that I wouldn’t stop in time to hit the high note at the end. We brought it to the man who was the head of [record label] Phillips and I sat on the floor with my basket and Serge sat in his chair and this man listened to it, with all its explicit sexual moaning, and said, ‘Look, children, I’m willing to go to prison, but I’m not going to prison for a 45 single—I’d rather go for a long-playing record, so go back and make another 10 songs and we’ll bring it out as an LP.' » As for rumors that they really were making love when they recorded it, Jane says, « Serge’s reply to that was it wouldn’t have been a single, it would have been a long-playing record. » While « Je T’Aime » was by no means Gainsbourg’s best song, it « did the job, » as Françoise Hardy puts it. The duet with Jane became a worldwide sensation, banned by the BBC, banned by the Vatican, with bootleg copies circulated all over the world. In America, Neil Bogart, the head of Buddah Records, played « Je T’Aime » at a party in Los Angeles, and everyone kept telling him to play it again, and again, and again. He thought if he could get someone to do a longer, English song like this, he would have a hit. And eventually, he got Giorgio Moroder to produce Donna Summer’s « Love to Love You Baby. » Voilà: disco.
‘Toward the end of our life living together, I just remember everything became so monotonous, » says Jane Birkin. « Because we didn’t go to the four or five nightclubs anymore—it was just Élysée Matignon and it was the Élysée Matignon until four in the morning because everyone gave Serge something to drink and it was just systematic and boring. And when I think about it now it’s terrible to say, because the piano used to come out of the floor and people would be hanging around like they do in nightclubs—two, three in the morning—and they’d ask him for a little melody.… So now I feel like I was living with Frédéric Chopin going, ‘Hey, Frédéric, you’ve got to go home.’ I used to wrench him from the piano and tell people to stop giving him drinks, because they’d give him drinks and he’d give them drinks and it was never-ending until four o’clock in the morning. »
Paris, May 22, 2007: Actress Jeanne Moreau sits at a table at Mariage Frères wearing a black suit with the small, round, red Légion d’Honneur in her lapel. « Serge was very well educated, very well read, very sophisticated, very charming, » she says. « Serge presented what people never dare to show of themselves. He said things that people would have loved to say. People were not envious of him being rich, never, because he was generous. Johnny Hallyday goes and lives in Switzerland so not to pay taxes, but Gainsbourg didn’t give a damn. That’s why he was loved. And he knew how to write songs for women. It’s beyond language. Even if you play Serge’s songs in the middle of Africa, where nobody understands the words, they’ll be caught. It’s like when Lillian Gish said she regretted there were no more silent movies that spoke to everybody. »
The entrance to Gainsbourg’s house. Photograph by Jean-Baptiste Mondino.
Around seven years ago, Charlotte went to the Rue de Verneuil house one day and all the graffiti had been covered over with « disgusting yellow » paint. She thought it had been done by the police, but they told her the neighbors thought it was « filthy » and they had organized this cover-up, at night. « But the great thing was a week later, » she says, « it was all covered with graffiti again. » Because the house is so small, Charlotte’s dream of turning it into a museum has met with all sorts of bureaucratic red tape; there’s no room for security or wheelchair access and whatnot. But she’s determined: « I’d like people to visit the house, then maybe go to another place next door to read about him and listen to music. » According to Jane, « Charlotte is miraculous as a daughter. It has taken so long for her to have paid all the bills, to see the alarm system is working, the heating is working, to keep the house going. She stuck it through thick and thin when every single minister of culture, every single mayor of Paris, has promised a museum and it’s never happened in 16 years. On the other hand, everything that was her father’s was so public; this way she had one little place that was private, where she could remember what it was like as a child. »
In the Brasserie Vagenende, on Boulevard Saint-Germain, actress, singer, and star of the French New Wave cinema Anna Karina remembers Serge, with whom she starred in the 1967 television musical Anna. « I always thought he was very cute, very sexy. I never liked the pretty faces—that’s boring. I was just coming out of my marriage to Jean-Luc Godard, and I guess I didn’t fall for Serge, because I was afraid he’d take over my life. This was before Bardot and before Jane. He was very elegant, always dressed in a beautiful suit. He never stopped smoking, or drinking, but maybe it’s better to live the way you want to instead of always saying, ‘I have to drink water.’ He phoned me the day before he died and said, ‘Anna, I want to do a picture with you and Aurore Clément.’ He said, ‘We’ll have dinner together and talk about it. I’ll call you tomorrow.’ And the next day I heard on the radio that he died. »
New York City, June 4, 2007: « Serge enjoyed every single second of stardom, » says his friend and drinking companion François Ravard, who produced Gainsbourg’s last movie, Stan the Flasher, and now manages Marianne Faithfull. « Everybody recognized him, and he loved that—taxi drivers, policemen. He loved afternoon daiquiris with the police and going into the police van; he used them like a taxi, » Ravard says. Toward the end of his life, Gainsbourg created « Gainsbarre, » a sort of outlandish, alter ego for himself that allowed him to say shocking things on television. « He invented ‘Gainsbarre’ as a joke, a line, » says Ravard. « He would say, ‘That’s not me, that’s Gainsbarre.’ And later on when he became so famous and was on TV all the time the press made it serious, the double persona became a much bigger thing. » But despite the alcoholism and deteriorating health, Ravard says, « if you had an appointment with him at seven in the morning he was always on time, never late in the recording studio, never late on a movie set, heaven to work with. And really, really quick, because he knew exactly what he wanted. »
‘After I left Serge, I was most grateful to Catherine Deneuve, » says Jane Birkin, « because they were doing a film together and she looked after him; she saw he had his breakfast and that he ate okay. » Even though he was devastated that Jane had left him for Jacques Doillon, Serge and Jane remained close. When she gave birth to Lou, she rang Serge up to tell him, and the following day a large package arrived at the American Hospital with little clothes he’d bought for the baby with a card that read, « Papa Deux. » « He was so essential in our lives. I always felt I had a metaphorical room in his house, and he had a very real room in our house, if he wanted it, with Charlotte there. I was proud of the relationship. »
Georges V/Four Seasons Hotel, Paris, May 23, 2007: Bambou, Gainsbourg’s paramour for the last decade of his life, arrives with Lulu (né Lucien), their now 21-year-old son. Lulu is very tall, big, handsome, with long dark hair—he looks like a rock star. Bambou (née Caroline Von Paulus) is half Chinese, half German, and looks at least a decade younger than her 48 years. She carries a Birkin bag; she says Lulu gave it to her on his 18th birthday to thank her for taking such good care of him. They live in Paris in the house Serge bought for Lulu. Serge nicknamed her « Bambou, » she says, because she used to smoke opium and was a junkie when she met him (she’s now sober), but, she says, she never used drugs in his presence—he wouldn’t allow it in his house. She tells me how he tried to turn her into a singer, about his failing health after a 1989 liver operation and subsequent stays in the hospital, and says, « Serge was everything to me. He was my lover, my father—he was my real family. And with Lulu, he left me an angel. » In the days leading up to her birthday on March 1, 1991, « I just felt something bad was going to happen, » she says. « He was very sick. » After her celebratory birthday dinner, when he didn’t answer his phone all night or the following day (she hadn’t stayed at Rue de Verneuil and he had never given her a key), she finally called the firemen, who broke in and discovered that he had died of a heart attack in his sleep.
‘On the Monday before he died, he rang me up and said he was going to New Orleans to do a jazz record, » Jane says, « and that Charlotte was there with him, and he said, ‘She wants to live with me. She said I was the man she’d been looking for all her life.’ I thought, How wonderful. I was in England visiting my sick father when Jacqueline phoned to say Serge was dead. I couldn’t believe it. I must have screamed. I rushed back to Paris, and when I arrived I thought things were still moving, people haven’t stopped their work, he can’t be dead, perhaps it’s all wrong. For four days we all stayed around Serge in his bedroom—Bambou, me, Charlotte, Kate—we didn’t eat, and Charlotte said she didn’t want him to go away. I knew people you could contact who would preserve the body, so I got out of the house somehow and got to my friend, who rang up the people so they could preserve Serge and not have to bury him right away, because Charlotte didn’t want him to be buried, she wanted to keep him. Then, when Charlotte said she wanted him to be buried, I went with Jacqueline and Bambou to the cemetery Montparnasse (where Baudelaire, Man Ray, Jean-Paul Sartre, and many other artists are buried) and looked around for a place he would want, and I saw where we buried his mother and father and thought that was the best place because it was bang in the middle, right next to all the musicians. I knew he wouldn’t want to be down some side alley not in view. »
For days the tiny Rue de Verneuil was shut down, with people in the streets, singing his songs, not unlike the scene around the Dakota after John Lennon was killed. « I went to the funeral even though I don’t go to funerals, » says François Ravard, « and I had everyone calling me, like it was a Stones concert, for tickets … like it was sold out. He would have loved that. » The funeral was attended by many celebrities: Deneuve read a eulogy; so did President Mitterand, who called him « our Baudelaire. » Brigitte Bardot sent the message « I love him as a man but even more as a musician. » Also on hand: hundreds of policemen and taxi drivers.
&$8216;He refused to use the word ‘genius,’ because he thought it was very pretentious, » says Jane. « He said, ‘I’m just a great lyric writer.’ Serge was 15 years ahead of everyone else with the music he did, and he could have been discovered after his death. For he who was worried about whether he was loved, he knew it in his lifetime. He knew that he and [comedian] Coluche were the two people that the French loved more than anybody in France. But would he have been able to imagine the people singing in the streets after his death, the Japanese girls trying to find his tomb in the cemetery Montparnasse, the Americans writing on the wall of his house, we miss you, serge—life is such a bore? I don’t think he could have imagined that. »
« When he died, » says Charlotte, « his music was on the radio every minute. I know every note; you could put two seconds of any song of his on and I’d recognize it and I’d ask somebody to stop it. I couldn’t hear his voice—it was really unbearable for me to hear. It still is. »
Marianne Faithfull, who worked with Serge in the early 60s, says, « I was very sad when he died. I thought by the time I’d grown up and gotten off drugs that there’d be a time when I’d work with him again. I still miss him. And every time I start to make a record I think, Fuck, it’s so annoying that he’s dead. »
Lisa Robinson is a Vanity Fair contributing editor and music writer.