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.