Arletty was a great French star of the silver screen during the Thirties and Forties, but she was also known for a few outspoken apophthegms about having sex with a German officer during the occupation. ‘If you hadn’t let them in, I wouldn’t have slept with him,’ and the better known, ‘My heart is French, but my arse is international.’ Like immortal ancient Greeks such as Socrates, Plato, Taki, Aristophanes and Pericles, Arletty used only one name, but fans knew her as ‘la môme de Courbevoie’, due to her childlike appearance at the start of her career.
A new book out in France includes the love letters of Arletty and the young Luftwaffe officer who became the love of her life. When I read a review of it I suddenly froze. The Luftwaffe officer turns out to be the German ambassador who was tragically lost while swimming in the Congo river on 9 October 1960, an incident I had referred to in one of my columns. It came about as follows: Paul Johnson had written in these here pages about crocodiles and had mentioned the German’s death. I had discussed it with him at his 50th wedding-anniversary party, and he had made a harmless joke about crocs eating Germans. I repeated the comments in my own column. Alas, members of his family read them, and sent me a very polite note taking me to task for making fun of a man who died in front of his family in horrible circumstances and whose body was never found. I wrote back apologising and have felt pretty lousy about it ever since.
Now I read that the ambassador was one and the same as Arletty’s lover, a handsome and heroic Luftwaffe pilot who after the war was named ambassador to the Congo just as that tragic country became independent. His name was Hans Jürgen Soehring, and he was first introduced to Arletty by — believe it or not — a lady whom I knew in Paris 40 years ago, Josée de Chambrun, she being the daughter of Pierre Laval, the French premier executed after the war. Her husband was a courageous man and a top lawyer who defended OAS nationalists and soldiers who fought to keep Algeria French. Arletty was introduced to the Luftwaffe officer in March 1941 and soon after they met again in the château de Grosbois, near the main Luftwaffe base, and where the actress was filming Madame Sans-Gêne. Their passionate affair became public as the lovers met at her flat on 13 Quai de Conti, very close to the Académie française. They attended the opera together, took trips to the winter resort of Megève, and he even introduced her to Field Marshal Goering in one of the latter’s frequent shopping trips to Paris. All was hunky-dory except that his career suffered as a result. Eventually sent to fight with the Italians at Monte Cassino, Soehring had a good war, and in 1954 entered the diplomatic service.
Arletty did not fare as well. After the war, that is. When the arresting gendarme asked her how she was, she answered, ‘Pas très resistante.’ She was put in La Conciergerie, where Queen Marie-Antoinette spent her last miserable years, and was interrogated for hours on end 11 nights running. She was then sent to an internment camp and after that to a residence for bad women. She was forbidden to act. But by Christmas 1946 she managed to rejoin her lover in Munich, where she was photographed riding and impeccably dressed with her handsome German pilot. All’s well that ends well, but in this case it didn’t.
I always thought the French acted disgracefully going after women who had slept with German officers. Love and passion — and certainly hunger — do not recognise uniforms. Arletty, the star of such beautiful films such as Les Enfants du paradis, Hôtel du Nord, Fric-frac and La Fleur de l’âge, was truly in love, and who the hell were those who dared to judge her after the war? In 1949, the lovers met for the last time in Paris. The intuitive Arletty smelt that her handsome German was playing hooky. She was right. He married, had children and died in front of them while swimming in a river far away from Europe and civilisation. Arletty took it very badly. She outlived her lover by 32 years, dying aged 94 in the year 1992. She was blind.
No one has yet made a film of this wartime romance, and the reasons for this are obvious. The French re-invented history following the Allied victory over a Germany that had to put up with the additional handicap of being allied to the Italians. The fact that Guderian and Rommel made patsies out of the Ligne Maginot and the BEF still stings. My friend Andrew Roberts might write non-stop about how great the Brits were, but there are those of us who know who would have won if America, the Soviets, Poland, South Africa, Rhodesia, Holland, Greece, even tiny Belgium and the Free French had not united against Hitler. The German army, especially the Prussian officer corps, has never been matched, perhaps only by the Japanese Imperial Army. To say this today is not very smart, but then it wasn’t very smart for Arletty to flaunt her lover all around Paris either. I think the French government should posthumously apologise to Arletty, just as the present German government should apologise to us for having become such wimps.