Ève Curie - the musician who became an exile

UNITED STATES - JANUARY 24: Portrait of author Eve Curie

Portrait of author Eve Curie - Credit: Conde Nast via Getty Images

It was a cold evening in Paris on February 12, 1926, when the cream of city society made their way to the Salle des Agriculteurs on Rue d’Athènes, all cloche hats, fox furs, buttonhole carnations and clouded breath. When the doors had closed and everyone was seated, the lights dimmed and applause drowned out the hubbub of conversation. A young woman with bobbed black hair walked on to the stage, laid one hand on top of the piano, dipped her head self-consciously, swished the hem of her black dress forward and sat down on the piano stool. She was perfectly still for a moment, lifted her hands onto the keys and picked out the opening notes of Beethoven’s 32 Variations in C Minor.

Ève Curie was 21 years old and already renowned throughout the city and beyond for her beauty, her style, her musical talent and her name. The daughter of double-Nobel Prize winning scientist Marie Curie she had, unlike her sister Irène, decided against a life in the laboratory to pursue an artistic calling. Since she was a child she had played the piano like a dream, enough to secure recital and concert bookings throughout Europe that drew appreciative crowds and glowing reviews.

Beethoven led to a selection of Chopin before, according to the correspondent from the Tatler, “in Schumann’s Scènes d’Enfants she absolutely wiped the floor with us and then, as a finish, showed us what she could do with Liszt. She was called back again and again. She simply couldn’t leave the hall”.

As the applause washed over her, Curie responded with shy dips of the head. Looking out over the sea of faces that glowed in the dim light from the stage she felt as if Paris itself was laid out before her. She didn’t know it at the time but this would be one of the last occasions on which she would perform for the Parisian public.

Fourteen years later, to the day, her face was on the cover of Time magazine. Not as a pianist, but as the bestselling author of a biography of her mother, published in 1937 to wide international acclaim and leading to a lecture tour of the USA. That week she was also Eleanor Roosevelt’s guest at the White House, where as head of the women’s division of the Commissaire général à l’information, the office of the Commissioner for Information, she answered the first lady’s questions about life in a country at war and fearing invasion. “The best job women can do in France is to keep the country alive while the men are away,” she told Roosevelt during a four-course dinner given in her honour.

Four months later, in June 1940, Curie sat sharing slices of smoked sausage in the overcrowded smoking room of the SS Madura, a P&O liner evacuating British citizens caught in France and French people vital to the war effort in the tense days between the Dunkirk evacuations and Hitler’s arrival in Paris. 

Curie at least had a purpose, to join what would soon become the Free French administration in London, and she had travelled to Bordeaux with a handful of colleagues for passage on the Madura to link up with de Gaulle in England. The ship was designed for fewer than 400 passengers but more than 1,300 had squeezed aboard, crowded onto the decks and into corridors, sleeping wherever they could, on top of and beneath tables in the restaurant. Two days later, after a voyage in which the ship was attacked by German planes, Curie disembarked at Falmouth unsure when she would ever see France again, if at all. A year later, as she became a high-profile spokesperson for the Free French, the Vichy government confiscated her Paris home and cancelled her French citizenship. She was officially an exile.

Curie threw herself into her work on behalf of France, broadcasting to Europe on the BBC, lunching at Chequers with Churchill, travelling to Scotland to meet with Polish troops and early in 1941 returning to the US to help publicise the plight of her nation. The International Herald Tribune engaged her as a war reporter and for the next two years she was on the move, to Nigeria, Iran, Iraq, the Soviet Union, Burma, India and China, a whistle-stop global hop of some 40,000 miles that produced a collection of her writings published in her 1943 book Journey Among Warriors, an extraordinary account of the human and global faces of the war.

She met ordinary soldiers, including a German prisoner who demanded to know what Pétain, the puppet prime minister of Vichy France, would make of a Frenchwoman working with the British, and Gandhi, whose creed of non-violence grated a little, particularly when it came to “the Poles who, by their heroism on countless battlefields, kept their invaded country alive – the Poles who had even accepted to fight at the side of the Russians, their former oppressors, in order to liberate their fatherland. He dismissed the Poles, not without disdain, by saying ‘They are a race of fighters who have not the slightest notion of what a philosophy such as non-violence consists of. To fight is their only way of expressing themselves’”. Curie was half-Polish.

Curie was born almost exactly a year after her parents were awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in recognition of their work in the field of radiation. Before she was two years old her father Pierre was killed, falling in front of a horse-drawn cart on a rain-slick Rue Dauphine in the spring of 1906. Her mother was consumed by grief and threw herself into her work, Ève’s and Irène’s kindly paternal grandfather playing the chief parental role in their upbringing.

In 1921 Ève travelled with her sister to the US when their mother was invited to make a lecture tour. Already showing signs of the illness that would kill her, Marie Curie found the US overwhelming and exhausting, often making it necessary for Ève and Irène to stand in for their mother attending dinners given in her honour and accepting honorary degrees on her behalf. The American press became smitten with Ève in particular, christening her “the girl with radium eyes”.

She graduated in science and philosophy in Paris in 1925 but chose not to follow her mother and sister into the laboratory. When Irène and her husband were jointly awarded the 1935 Nobel Prize for Chemistry Ève would spend the rest of her days joking about being the black sheep of the family. “You are sure it is me you want and you’re not mixing me up with my sister by any chance?” she asked an interviewer in 1972. “I am the only one of the family not to have won a Nobel Prize, you see.”

Curie had fallen into writing almost by accident. When Irène married fellow physicist Frédéric Joliot in 1926 Ève became effectively Marie’s permanent carer. A career’s worth of exposure to radioactive material had left the discoverer of radium terminally ill with leukaemia – a condition that would also kill Irène – but Marie Curie accompanied her daughter on concert tours and lecture tours of her own until she became too ill and frail to travel. Ève’s biography of her mother, Madame Curie, was published three years after Marie’s death in 1934 and became an international bestseller, translated into more than 40 languages and adapted for the screen in 1943 with Greer Garson in the title role. Generations of women would cite Madame Curie as their necessary inspiration to follow their calling rather than settle for the life of housewife and mother expected of them.

She did make it back to Paris, almost as soon as the Germans had left. For the first four years after the liberation she ran a daily newspaper Paris-Press and in 1952 became an adviser to the secretary general of Nato, relocating to New York. Two years later, at the age of 50, she married Henry Labouisse who would become US ambassador to Greece and in 1965 the executive director of UNICEF. Ève and her husband travelled together to more than 100 countries for the organisation and in 1965 Henry accepted the Nobel Peace Prize on UNICEF’s behalf as once again she found herself in the Nobel orbit.
She lived to the age of 102 and was awarded the Légion d’Honneur a year before she died. “I feel honoured, I feel proud,” she said in her acceptance speech. “I’m a little embarrassed because I don’t think I deserve all those wonderful compliments, so I just don’t quite know how to behave.”

Her 100th birthday had been marked by a visit from Kofi Annan and letters of congratulation from George W. Bush and Jacques Chirac, but according to her stepdaughter Ève Curie never shook off guilt that she was the only member of her family to escape a life working with radiation and its deadly consequences. As she carried the Curie name to all parts of the world its legacy never stopped weighing heavily upon her.

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