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Dalida: A life ground down by tragedy

French singer and actress Dalida (1933 - 1987), circa 1955 - Credit: Getty Images

CHARLIE CONNELLY on Dalida, the French superstar singer who endured a catalogue of personal catastrophes

They made an unlikely couple arriving at the Sanremo Music Festival in January 1967, the young protest singer some called the Italian Bob Dylan and the elegant, older chanteuse from Paris with a glittering decade of mainstream chart success behind her.

Dalida had met Luigi Tenco in Rome the previous summer after she’d given a triumphant, sell-out concert in the Italian capital. She was on top of the world when she came off stage that night, adrenalin still pumping, ovation ringing in her ears, as close as she ever came to genuine, unbridled happiness.

He looked nervous and uncomfortable among the showbusiness hangers-on who always showed up backstage after a concert. She went out of her way to make him feel welcome, he certainly made a pleasant change from the oily schmoozers who always held onto her hand and her gaze for just too long. Dalida and Tenco sat down and soon the conversation flowed so easily they were by some distance the last to leave.

The relationship they embarked upon was intense, stormy even, but each had sensed a mutual vulnerability where they’d bonded immediately. They inhabited different worlds, but thrived on that: when Tenco played in low-key, low-ceilinged clubs where crowds of Italian youths sat cross-legged on the floor, rapt by the intensity of his songs of injustice and redemption, Dalida would stand at the back marvelling at his understated stagecraft.

Whatever her personal feelings Dalida knew he had something as a performer, a fizzing, tortured charisma channelled through simple songs of concise lyrics and irresistible melody. Sanremo, the annual song competition on the Italian Riviera, was not his natural platform but it could introduce him to a much wider audience. They’d also be appearing on the same stage, not at the same time but singing versions of Tenco’s subtly phrased tilt at the soullessness of modern society Ciao, Amore, Ciao.

It didn’t go well. Paralysed with nerves Tenco downed a bottle of brandy and a handful of tranquilisers making his performance sluggish and distracted. Dalida subsequently brought the house down performing the same song, but afterwards there was no sign of Tenco backstage. She thought he might have gone ahead to the restaurant where they had arranged to dine with friends after the show, but he wasn’t there, either.

Dalida returned to the hotel in the early hours to find Tenco dead on the floor, a bullet hole in his temple and a note that specified “I am doing this not because I’m tired of life (I’m not) but as a gesture of dissent against the public”.

The next morning a distraught Dalida faced the media in a hotel conference suite. Dabbing her eyes and sobbing as the cameras crowded round, dazzling her with spotlights and throwing harsh shadows onto the wall behind her, she had never looked more vulnerable.

A week later she was back in France and performing on television, dedicating the song Parlez moi de lui to Tenco on the show Palmarès des chansons while wearing the same dress she’d worn when she’d found his body. France marvelled at her courage and fortitude. This was, after all, a performer who would remain at the forefront of French music for three decades, embracing everything from torch songs to disco and selling more than 175 million records along the way and becoming, after Joan of Arc and Sarah Bernhardt, only the third woman in France to have a statue erected in her honour.

Her fans adored how she didn’t just recite songs of heartbreak and pain, joy and hope, love and loss, she inhabited them. When Dalida went before the cameras that night on Palmarès des chansons it was yet more proof of her indestructibility, exorcising her grief by drawing it out through song and presenting it to the nation. It was a show of strength for her public and a way of claiming ownership of her loss. These cameras were channelling her pain, not intruding on it the way they had in Rome. Her fans had lived with her through her triumphs and setbacks and here she was triumphant, just days after her greatest loss of all, bouncing back just as she always did.

Three weeks later, alone in a room at the Prince de Galles Hotel in Paris, Dalida swallowed a fistful of barbiturates. She was found just in time, spent five days in a coma and took months to recover. Almost immediately she embarked on a relationship with a 22-year-old student, fell pregnant and as the most difficult year of her life came to a close she had a termination that left her unable to conceive a child ever again.

1967 had thrown enough torment at Dalida to last a lifetime, but there was still more to come. In 1970 Lucien Morisse, her ex-husband and a man who did more than most to launch her stellar career, shot himself. In 1975 her close friend the Israeli singer Mike Brant, whom Dalida had helped to establish by giving him support slots at her live shows, threw himself to his death from his Paris apartment window. Finally in 1983 Richard Chanfray, with whom Dalida had a nine-year relationship during the 1970s, committed suicide by attaching a hose to the exhaust pipe of his car.

Eventually the sheer weight of tragedy, combined with the return of a childhood eye condition that made stage lighting unbearable, led Dalida to take her own life, leaving a note next to the empty pill bottle that read simply, “La vie m’est insupportable. Pardonnez-moi.”

If darkness trailed her throughout her life, it was darkness that first instilled in her the power of music. Born Iolanda Gigliotti to Italian parents in Egypt, where her violinist father was leader of the orchestra at Cairo’s Khedivial Opera House, before she was two years old Dalida’s eye condition required treatment necessitating her remaining blindfolded for 40 days. Her father would sit with her for hours, playing the violin, the music becoming her light in the darkness.

At the outbreak of the Second World War Pietro Gigliotti was imprisoned as an enemy alien and not released until 1944, returning a changed and traumatised man destined to die of a brain aneurysm within months. “I hated him when he beat me,” Dalida recalled. “I hated him especially when he beat my mother and brothers. I wanted him to die – and he did.”

In 1954 Iolanda Gigliotti was elected as Miss Egypt. The Suez Crisis prevented her travelling to the following year’s Miss World contest but her title was enough to secure roles in Egyptian feature films. The director Marco de Gastyne often heard her singing between takes, prompting him to encourage her to forsake Egypt and pursue a career in Europe. So, in January 1955, Iolanda Gigliotti launched herself upon the French capital under the stage name Dalida.

One night in 1956 French record producer Eddie Barclay and Lucien Morisse, who ran a successful French pop music radio station, sat in a bar next to the Olympia Theatre in Paris debating whether they should bother going next door to hear a succession of prospective pop stars at a showcase billed optimistically as ‘Number Ones of Tomorrow’. They rolled a dice, the number committed them to the show and they took their seats just as Dalida walked onto the stage in a white gown and sang Stranger In Paradise. The men were both smitten instantly by her extraordinary voice and stage presence, with Morisse smitten enough to eventually become her husband.

In Barclay’s and Morisse’s hands Dalida exploded onto the French pop scene. Her first hit, 1957’s Bambino, became the biggest-selling single in France of the entire 1950s and stayed at No.1 for an unprecedented 39 weeks. By 1964 Dalida had earned France’s first ever platinum disc in recognition of 10 million record sales and four years later she became the first and so far only musician to be awarded the Médaille de la Présidence de la République.

She never broke America or the UK, but she neither needed nor wanted to. In 1958 she had turned down a cash-stuffed 15 year contract offer from a major US impresario because she was perfectly content with her career in France. It was there that she lived a life defined by personal drama and commercial success, driven on through 600 recorded songs and countless concerts by the demons that had beset her since her father’s death. The stage, and its literal lights in the darkness, provided her only escape. Only there could she feel like she belonged.

“Every woman has a little girl inside her, and every man a little boy, who are crying all the time,” she said. “You have to keep that little being captive, like a monster. But if you kill it you kill yourself.”

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