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Simone Simon: The French actress who found herself on trial

Actress Simone Simon, circa 1942 - Credit: Getty Images

CHARLIE CONNELLY on the French star Simone Simon, whose Hollywood career was overshadowed by a court case.

Sitting in the courtroom during the summer of 1938 Simone Simon looked anything but the glamorous transatlantic film star. In a simple coat and hat and flat shoes she watched the proceedings with an increasing sense of mortified disbelief, knees and ankles pressed together, wanting to be anywhere in the world but this Los Angeles courthouse.

She wasn’t even the one on trial, yet this Hollywood actress who had guarded her privacy more successfully than most was listening to insinuation and innuendo about her personal life discussed as if she wasn’t even there.

The previous year her personal assistant, Sandra Martin, had siphoned up to $16,000 from her bank account while Simon was away in France. She had been told it was an open and shut case to be settled quickly, but when Martin was cross-examined she took an opener to a can of worms that splashed the case across the front pages. If Simon was to put her in the dock Martin would in turn summon her former employer to the court of salacious public opinion.

Simon had managed her privacy fairly successfully since she’d arrived in Hollywood from France three years earlier, despite an unpromising start. Ushered into a meeting with Twentieth Century Fox mogul Darryl Zanuck while she could still feel the faint engine throb from the liner in her bones, she thought about how friends back home had advised her to assert herself. Show any sign of weakness, they said, and the ruthless Hollywood machine would gobble her up and spit her out. Work out what you want, then demand more.

“We talked polite things for a while, like the weather and my journey, but I wanted only to talk about my work and decided I must lead the conversation,” Simon told an interviewer in 1936. “I made certain demands that I did not expect to get but Mr Zanuck just made a big smile and said, ‘fine!’”

This was not how a hard-bitten studio executive was supposed to behave. For one thing, he wouldn’t stop smiling at her. For another, he seemed disinclined to refuse his new protégé anything she desired. Simon aimed high.

“I must have a panther,” she said. “I am very exotic and like panthers very much. I want this beautiful animal to walk with me when I go shopping.”

“Great idea,’ said Zanuck. “We’ll get you a panther. What kind of panther would you like?”

Clearly this was a battle the newly-arrived starlet couldn’t win.

“It was then decided I couldn’t be crazy in Hollywood because Hollywood would just match me,” she recalled. “I would be very, very sane instead and maybe sanity would look crazy to them instead.”

Three years on from that decision, prosecuting someone she had previously trusted who stole from her was definitely the sane thing to do. Instead, events had become very strange indeed and there wasn’t a panther in sight.

The problems began when Sandra Martin turned out not to be Sandra Martin at all. She was Athena Alexandroff, the daughter of a Russian Orthodox priest from Seattle who was already wanted for a series of frauds committed in San Francisco. She’d skipped town just before they came to light, returned to Seattle until the heat was off, travelled to Los Angeles, became Sandra Martin and found work as secretary to Ralph Baum, agent to the stars including a newly-arrived Simone Simon.

Baum had assigned Martin to help Simon settle in and the pair had on the face of it become close friends. Martin had found her a house, taken her shopping and become a confidante to a lonely woman in a strange country. Simon had trusted Martin implicitly.

The revelation that her friend and employee was not who she seemed was just the beginning. The defendant – whose apartment, it was pointed out, was furnished to a level that far outstripped the salary of a personal assistant – initially indicated she would plead guilty in order, she said, “to spare Miss Simon embarrassment”. Brought before the court she instead denied the charges, claiming the money was used for purchases authorised by Simon. Including, she said after a pause of impeccable dramatic timing, a set of housekeys made from solid gold, a pair of golden hairbrushes and a set of men’s silk pyjamas, dressing gown and slippers all monogrammed, all intended for the same recipient.

The rumour mill went into overdrive. Who was the enigmatic Simone Simon’s gentleman caller, a man entrusted with his own set of housekeys made from solid gold? Whose initials were on the hairbrushes, pyjamas and dressing gown? Some reports even claimed there were several sets of golden keys distributed among a string of male visitors who could let themselves in as they liked. Directors, leading men, producers: for days the speculation was feverish as Simon’s reputation and dignity were trashed by a woman whose conviction sent her to prison for nine months, a sentence that would be increased to several years if she ever revealed anything about her victim’s personal life.

Simon had never felt more alone. On top of seeing her private life the subject of boundless media insinuation, news reports from the court also emphasised her foreign-ness. Her accent made her evidence “puzzling” according to one newspaper and quotes were written phonetically – “wiz” rather than “with” etc – making her feel not only that she was the one on trial but for all her screen success and fame she was still an outsider.

Within weeks she had returned to France, when even her departure emphasised how unwelcome she felt. Just as the ship was about to cast off from its pier at New York a tax inspector came panting up the gangplank demanding to see proof Simon had paid all her outstanding income tax before she could leave. Thrusting her paperwork towards him she vowed never return to the US.

As the Manhattan skyline shrank to the horizon behind her Simon thought back to the moment in 1931 when all this began, sitting in the Café de la Paix as a 21-year-old forging what looked to be a successful career on the Paris stage. She was winning sparkling reviews in the operetta Les aventures du roi Pausole at the Théâtre des Bouffes Parisiens and was sitting contentedly at a window table watching the world go by ahead of the evening’s performance when a middle-aged man loomed over her.

“You must forgive me,” he said. “You are so beautiful. I am an artist. I wonder if…” He was cut off in mid-sentence by a stinging slap to the cheek before he could explain that he wasn’t a sleazy lothario but the renowned Russian film director Viktor Tourjansky, who had seen her across the room and thought she had the perfect face for the screen.

Tourjansky was able to compose himself, introduce himself, wave aside the gushing apologies and give Simon a small part in his film Le chanteur inconnu. Three years later she was a star in France thanks to her role in Lac aux dames, a film scripted by the novelist Colette.

“She has no nose to speak of, extraordinary poise and vigour of movement, a precise little voice and eyes wide apart like a purebred Pekinese,” Colette said. “She’s learned the ropes in cinema and can take direction wonderfully. She has that something else, an indefinable thing that holds the attention, that keeps you thinking.”

That performance took her to Hollywood where Fox never seemed quite certain what to do with her. She brought a certain continental élan with her, an air of charismatic European mystery, but the studio never seemed to alight on the right formula to make Simon the huge star she should have been.

Back in France Jean Renoir immediately cast her as Séverine Roubaud, the tortured, murder-implicated lover of Jean Gabin’s Jacques Lantier in the classic La Bête Humaine and a successful career in great European films beckoned. Then the invasion of France in 1940 forced her back to the US where she starred in the 1942 cult science-fiction hit Cat People, the role for which she was best known, while waiting for the war to end and permit her to return home as soon as she could.

Her last major Hollywood role in Mademoiselle Fifi preceded her across the Atlantic, the first American film shown in France after the Normandy landings. In it she played Elizabeth, a French laundress stranded among Prussian soldiers, an outsider unsure of her place ultimately wronged and humiliated by the scheming woman of the film’s title. In the role, as in her life, Simon had to dig deep into her enigmatic, indomitable spirit to not only survive, but ultimately flourish.

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