Johnny Hallyday: The Making of France's Rock King

By Singer, Barnett | Contemporary Review, September 2004 | Go to article overview

Johnny Hallyday: The Making of France's Rock King


Singer, Barnett, Contemporary Review


IT was always easy to underestimate Johnny Hallyday. Wasn't he just some French knock-off of American rock n'rollers? Didn't he take English-language songs and turn them into Gallic versions? As La Fontaine modelled fables on Aesop's? Weren't his blond hair, look, and name so much fluff? And yet, why--when I first went across the pond in the early 1960s--did I find myself enjoying M. Hallyday's tremulous, driving, earthy offerings? Could this actually be an artiste?

It turns out that Johnny--still going strong in the same face-creased way as Mick Jagger--was indeed the real article. To understand why he stood out, you have to delve into an authentically deracinated, yet oddly healthy life history.

For that searching mien and incandescence on stage and records came in good part from early years when the boy hungered for a mother and especially, a father; both essentially disappeared on him. His father, Leon Smet, was a Belgian with both French and Flemish in him--a good-looking vagabond, himself fatherless, who performed in cabarets and theatres, starting up groups and disbanding them, and dropping wives as easily. By the time he hit Paris near the end of the 1930s, he had something special that attracted the avant-garde.

But war intervened, and he had to get by on odd jobs. He also moved from a second marriage to Johnny's Parisian mother, Huguette Clerc, herself a fille naturelle, who contributed some of the blond that made her son stand out in France.

The birth of Jean-Philippe (1943) increased Leon's nocturnal, bibulous absences; and only to give the boy legitimacy did Huguette marry in September, 1944. Then Leon took off, having found another, more highbrow woman.

To earn money, Huguette became a model, eventually working for Dior and Lanvin; while the lady who more than anyone made Jean-Philippe into 'Johnny' took over. Leon's sister Helene Mar had herself acted in the silent film era, then spent the rest of her life creating artistes--her hugger-mugger brother, her daughters, who became dancers, and pre-eminently, Johnny.

Perhaps (owing to Leon's dissolute life) the boy represented a second chance for her. A strong Catholic, and a fighter, she truly believed in him. Only she wasn't his mother. She, however, had time and energy for the job, and two daughters who also loved him, and no husband who could oedipally overwhelm. For Jacob Mar (part Ethiopian-part German) was collared at war's end as a collaborator and given a harsh imprisonment of five years.

Helene then wangled a month's trip to London, where daughters Desta and Menen would perform with the International Ballet in the autumn of 1945. On a phony passport, and with a kitten under his coat, Johnny went along too.

In London poverty and art coexisted, as the month extended into several years; and while loved aplenty from the distaff side, Jean-Philippe kept fantasizing about a father-figure. Then one magically appeared! Johnny's lifelong American-ophilia began with this providential meeting with Lee Ketcham in Saint-Martin's Lane. An Oklahoman whose great-uncle had translated Catholic liturgy into five Indian languages, Ketcham had fled Steinbeck's grim heartland for New York, procuring a spot in Oklahoma, the famous musical named after his home state. He then worked in London, where Oklahoma became a long runner.

From the beginning, Lee fit well with the 'family'. Johnny was enthralled by this blond deity in Stetson promising him a cowboy outfit, which duly arrived from the States. Desta and Lee liked each other too, and at first with Menen, then later alone, they became dance and life partners. Lee was currently tired of Oklahoma and wanted to conquer Europe. The Mars needed to get home for legal reasons. Could they all hook up? Helene pondered, Johnny prayed she would say yes, and then it was agreed--the threesome would start dancing together in Paris.

There Helene continued to overwhelm Johnny's more tentative mother. …

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