Saturday, July 3, 2010

One of the Gayest at Montmartre

Eugénia Fenoglio was born in 1866 in Toulon, France.  Her father, an alcoholic tailor, battered his wife, who often fled with the children to seek shelter with relatives.   The day came that her mother left her abusive husband for good, but not long after, he sought the family at their new residence and killed his wife and then himself in front of their daughter.

As a child, Eugénia had loved theatrics, and had written, directed, acted in, and even designed the sets for plays she staged with her friends.  Not long after her parents' murder-suicide, she made her way to the capitol, where, encouraged by a lover, she tried her luck on the stage and met with phenomenal success there.  She took the name Ève Lavallière, after a mistress of Louis XIV who, incidentally, had become a penitent and had died a Carmelite nun.

According to

"The sudden death of one of the leading actresses of the theatre became the opportunity for Ève and she did not disappoint. Her voice was exceptional and she was able to use it to convey every sort of emotion - from silence to violence, from authority to disgust.

"Listening to Ève conveyed the audience into the very heart of the tragedy or comedy . . . she was playing. Even the great contemporary actress, Sarah Bernhardt, told her, 'What you do is innate: you create - you do not copy the characters. You give birth to them from within yourself. It is very beautiful.'"

La Lavallière became the most popular and successful actress-singer of the Belle Époque.  She was fabulously wealthy and a critical success.  At the same time, her personal life grew more and more chaotic and disorderly.  Before achieving fame onstage, Ève had supported herself as a Parisian courtesan; after, she was the mistress at one time or another of an assortment of prominent men, and bore a child out of wedlock -- a daughter, who would cause her mother great despair as an adult by living openly in a lesbian relationship.

During the First World War, on holiday in a small village while preparing for a tour of the United States with the Théatre des Variétés, Lavallière experienced a dramatic conversion after meeting a local priest and mentioning to him lightly that she had sold her soul to the devil in order to maintain her youth.  The priest, at first outraged, lent her a book about St. Mary Magdalene, which she read in a state of gradual awakening to the reality of her life of sin, and in a spirit of deepening penitence.  She cancelled her participation in the American tour and retreated to the countryside with her dresser from the theater, Leona, who accompanied her conversion with every step.  Lavallière applied for entrance as a Carmelite postulant, but was denied on account of her poor health (and perhaps too because her fame both as an actress and as a libertine had penetrated even into the cloister of the Carmel).  Instead she became a Franciscan tertiary, and after an attempt at missionary work in Tunisia, spent the rest of her life in solitary prayer and penance.

Some years after Lavallière's abrupt renunciation of the stage, a French reporter managed to track her down.  The New York Times published a story about this encounter in 1921:  "Once talk of Paris, Actress is Recluse," proclaimed the headline. "One of the Gayest in Montmartre . . . Lives Apart from the World Except for Village Poor."  The article, which can be downloaded here, mentions that the reporter asked Lavallière's maid if the former actress "ever [thought] or [talked] about the past." 

"Never," was the maid's answer.  "When she gets letters from her old friends she sometimes smiles, for she has no bitterness about the past, but she doesn't think about it.  She thinks only of the present and the future." 

I first learned of Ève Lavallière five years ago, while doing my dissertation research on music and penitence.  Raïssa Maritain had written of her friend that, after her conversion, Lavallière's eyes were always wet with the tears of contrition.  I remember reading at the time that Pope John Paul II had beatified her, but have not been able to confirm this on the web.  Nonetheless, I have decided to start a home-made novena to her in advance of the anniversary of her death, July 10.  I am closing each day with a prayer written by Lavallière herself: 

Oh my beloved Master, by Thy hands nailed to the Cross, I beseech Thee to wipe away all of the sins committed by my criminal hands.  My sweet Jesus, by the painful fatigue endured by Thy blessed feet, by the divine wounds They suffered when They were pierced, wipe away the filth left by my guilty feet.  Finally, Oh my Master, Oh my Creator, Oh my Savior, by the dignity and innocence of Thy life, by the holiness and purity which characterized it, wash away all of the stains of my impure life.  May that abominable life exist no more in me, may the ardor of Thy love hold me entirely, for Thou art, Oh my King, the sole refuge of my soul; grant that I may be unceasingly consumed with the ardor of Thy charity.  Give me, my Redeemer, above all, Holy Humility. 

For more on Lavallière, go here. 


Honeybee said...

Thank you for this incredibly moving post.

I will join you in the novena.

Pentimento said...

I'm thrilled to have company in this prayer, Honeybee!

One of my intentions is her canonization -- if you want, please join me in that too.

Honeybee said...


Thanks so much for bringing attention her life. I had never heard of her before. It's a great pity her story isn't more widely known.

Rodak said...

An amazing life story, with the emphasis on "life."

Anonymous said...

Perhaps I lack sentimentally, or religious strength, but I saw this as a story of a woman who was likely at the end of her career, and knew it. "Lavallière experienced a dramatic conversion after meeting a local priest and mentioning to him lightly that she had sold her soul to the devil in order to maintain her youth." She was 51 when she 'suddenly' retired? I could not help but think her deal with the devil was not as ironclad as she had thought. I know of plenty of women who change their spots, and become the opposite of what they were. I find It only to be a psychological escape, and rather not a conversion worthy of Sainthood. Sometimes, I think that there really are not Saints, but just people with nothing to lose. Interesting that the latter Lavallière followed her namesake by applying to the Carmelite convent. The original succeeded and became Sister Louise of Mercy and died with her mistress fortune intact.

Pentimento said...

Sinville, the same speculation was rampant during Lavallière's own lifetime, i.e., that her "conversion" and retirement were merely a response to her fading success. However, these accusations were soundly refuted by those who knew her, and, having read quite a lot about Lavallière while doing my dissertation research (including the testimony of her friend Raïssa Maritain), I am convinced that her conversion was very real.

As far as your opinion of the religious conversions of sinful women, you'll have to include me in there. My own conversion hardly qualifies me for sainthood, and you're welcome to believe that it was a psychological dodge rather than a break between my old life and a new one. Whatever you think, I would be grateful for your prayers, since, as anyone who has received the gift of faith surely knows, conversion is a hard-fought daily battle.

Anonymous said...

My intention is not to criticize your faith, but I was aware that her retirement coincided with her life expectancy. I wondered if her illness was in fact 'old age'. I am not questioning the sincerity of her conversion, but its catalyst. Her loyal friends may have felt the woman was still at the top of her field, but society can be cruel, even in their time. I am not interested in judging women who convert, and I did not find her choices sinful. They were simply her choices to make, and like her namesake, the determination of sin, was her own. I hope you do have peace, and I believe it is also God's desire for all women.

Pentimento said...

If you did more research into Ève Lavallière's life, perhaps you would change your initial opinion about her illness being merely "old age." She suffered terribly. And you could also read more about her mission work in Tunisia, which few who had lived lives of luxury would undertake at the age she did.

Naturally, there are critics, both then and now, who thought her change of heart neurotic. This does not mean that it was. Likewise, your opinion as to whether acts are sinful or not does not make them any more or less so; nor does the opinion of those committing those acts. There are moral absoutes, just as there is natural law, and these are the determining factors.

Pentimento said...

The good thing about God is that He resourcefully makes use of anything that draws us ever-so-slightly slightly nearer to Him -- both the good reasons and the bad, the petty happenings and the life-shaking ones -- to stir our hearts, to make us yearn for Him. I do not know what pushed Ève Lavallière into the arms of God, but it hardly matters.

A nineteenth-century compatriot of Lavallière, Alphonse Ratisbonne, a Jewish atheist, became a Catholic and then a Jesuit after wearing a Miraculous Medal around on a dare.