The Arty Semite

Leading Lady with a Diabolique Sense of Justice

By Benjamin Ivry

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On September 30, the 25th anniversary of the death of beautiful French actress Simone Signoret, Les éditions Michel Lafon paid homage by publishing an augmented edition of an acclaimed biography by Emmanuelle Guilcher, “Signoret: a Life.” Signoret’s own two memoirs have just been reprinted by Les éditions du Seuil: “Nostalgia Isn’t What it Used to Be” and “The Next Day, She was Smiling.

In the former, Signoret explains: “I am the daughter of a non-Jewish lady who married a Jewish gentleman.” Born Simone Kaminker in 1921, her father André Kaminker had roots in Poland and Austria. When Germany invaded France, Signoret was a lycée student in the city of Vannes, where one of her teachers was Lucie Aubrac, a Resistance hero alongside her husband, Raymond Aubrac (still busy traveling the world at age 96).

Aubrac later recalled that she informed Signoret “that my husband is Jewish, and that brought us closer, because it made her think of her own Jewish father.” Onscreen Signoret repeatedly portrayed Jews, and Resistance fighters, with understandably powerful veracity. In 1953, in rehearsals for the Paris staging of “The Crucible,” Arthur Miller’s dramatization of the McCarthy witch-hunts, she engaged in much relevant discussion of how France’s Jews were forced to wear yellow stars and were denounced to the Gestapo, according to Guilcher. In the role of Elizabeth Proctor in “The Crucible,” Signoret “totally identified with the persona of [recently executed] Ethel Rosenberg, a martyred victim who was loyal unto death to her husband,” according to “Signoret: a Life.”

This emotional closeness to history was even clearer in films such as Sidney Lumet’s 1966 thriller “The Deadly Affair,” in which Signoret plays a Jewish widow, or a 1968 TV movie as the title character in Brecht’s short play “The Jewish Wife.” Signoret was also unforgettable as a Resistance fighter in Jean-Pierre Melville’s 1969 “Army of Shadows” inspired by the book by Joseph Kessel, and as a retired Jewish prostitute in Moshé Mizrahi’s 1977 “Madame Rosa.”

Signoret’s 1985 novel, Adieu, Volodya described with affection and understanding the lives of East European Jewish immigrants to Paris between the wars. French Jewish Prime Minister Pierre Mendès-France, praised Signoret for “contributing to the political education of [her] era.” Indeed, she lived long enough to help found the anti-racist organization “S. O. S. Racisme” in 1984, since, as one friend quoted by Guilcher explains, Signoret believed that the still-omnipresent French far-right wing demagogue Jean-Marie Le Pen represents “absolute evil.”

Watch a 1960’s TV interview with Signoret:


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