Tolstoy's granddaughter. Dali's sleek couch. How Serge Gainsbourg became Serge Gainsbourg

In 1945, he was a shy French virgin named Lucien mocked by prostitutes. Then he became France's sexiest musician

Published June 5, 2015 10:59PM (EDT)

  (AP/Heckly/Michel Lipchitz/Photo montage by Salon)
(AP/Heckly/Michel Lipchitz/Photo montage by Salon)

Excerpted from "Serge Gainsbourg: A Fistful of Gitanes"

In 1945, the same year that he declared his intention to devote his life to art, Lucien lost his virginity. Alighting the metro at Barbès, he set off nervously to look for a prostitute. In addition to his natural shyness and timidity was an added element of guilt from having cadged the money from his unsuspecting mother. “The first ones he approached laughed at him and told to come back when he was old enough,” said Jane. “Well he was old enough.” Seventeen, but looking years younger, with not even the merest hint that he might one day need to shave.

The next group of women intimidated him so badly that he wound up picking the ugliest one who, on a grubby bed in a grubby room, chewed gum through the entire transaction. He found the experience so disgusting that he couldn’t, or wouldn’t, climax, waiting until he was home to take the matter in hand. Hardly surprising that he should later describe sex as “onanisme, par personne interposée”.

And yet there was something about paying for sex that appealed to Lucien and over the coming years he would continue to visit prostitutes, claiming to have had an affectionate relationship with several, even if only one of them had ever told him he was any good. “They mocked him,” said Jane, “and he suffered terribly from that. So his vengeance later was to have the most beautiful girls in France.”

There were plenty of beautiful women at the École Supérieure Des Beaux-Arts, the prestigious art school in which his father had enrolled him. (Although his decision to quit high school had horrified Olia, who saw her darling boy’s future as a doctor or lawyer at the very least, it appeared to have stirred some latent painterly gene in Joseph.) If Lucien was slow on the uptake – by his own words a ‘late starter’, guaranteed by an almost puritanical attitude towards his body and a firm conviction of his ugliness – by 1947, two years into his studies, he had found a personne interposée that he didn’t have to pay.

Although his attempts at an affair with an 18-year-old Russian aristocrat classmate – Olga Tolstoy, granddaughter of the celebrated writer – had ended in dismal failure, Lucien somehow found the confidence to approach another Russian aristocrat who was two years older than him (the same age difference that separated Joseph and the older Olia). Elisabeth Levitsky, a part-time model, was not only beautiful, thus answering Lucien’s strict aesthetic requirements (“Painting has always been inextricably mixed into my sexual life,” he said. “I’ve always had an eye”), she was also more sexually forthcoming than La Tolstoy (of which, more later).

Elisabeth worked as secretary to the French surrealist poet Georges Hugnet, a friend of Salvador Dali. Dali’s apartment on the Rue De L’Université was left unoccupied while the artist and his wife Gala were back at their home in Spain, and Hugnet had been given a set of keys to keep an eye on the place. Somehow Lucien and Elisabeth appropriated the keys and, on one delirious night that stayed tattooed in his memory, fucked in Dali’s all-black living-room – its walls and ceiling covered in astrakhan, the curly black material used on old-fashioned coat collars – on a pile of priceless artworks by Miro, Ernst, Picasso and their unwitting host, scattered on the floor. Lucien left the apartment with a Gitane clamped between his lips, a future wife, a firm idea of the ideal in decor, a small black-and-white picture stolen from Dali’s porn collection of two young girls eating each other out, and a reinforced belief that surrealism was the finest artistic movement there ever was.

In the year that had gone by since he’d switched his studies to painting from architecture (his original choice of a professionally oriented course might well have been a sop to his mother’s future expectations for her only son) he had been experimenting in all kinds of movements – from figurative to impressionist to cubist and back again – in search of a style that fitted. But it was always the surrealists that drew him back. “My great regret,” he said, “was not having lived during that time” – the 1920s, when the literary-artistic movement led by poet André Breton flourished in France’s capital. And although he later claimed he had never found his style as a painter, surrealism, with its surprise, shock and exaggeration, would have a major influence on his music.

In 1947, while continuing at Beaux-Arts, Lucien also enrolled in a simultaneous one-year course at music school to study composition, notation and theory – suggesting that even at this point he had some intuition that painting might not be the all-encompassing existence he had declared that it was. Elisabeth was also playing an increasingly prominent role in his life. Apart from anything else, she was keeping him – a fact which infuriated his father. When Joseph’s lectures on fiscal responsibility and digs about having a gigolo for a son failed to have the desired effect, he hit on a more practical solution: he would hire a gypsy guitar player to teach his son to play guitar. It would be simple for someone of Lucien’s musical skills to pick up, easy for him to carry around, and a good way of making some money at weddings and bar mitzvahs. He was right. Lucien loved the passionate, melancholic music the gypsy played, which had a good deal in common, he felt, with Slavic and Jewish music. And he was quick to adapt what he had learned to his own style – part Django Reinhardt, and a bigger part basic strum. With Joseph acting as unpaid agent, Lucien was set up on the party circuit, which he continued to play until, in the day in 1948 when the postman arrived at Avenue Bugeaud – the Ginsburg family’s latest apartment in the far more salubrious 16th arondissement – with a letter from the French government ordering him into the army. Like every other 20-year-old Frenchman, Lucien had to perform 12 months of compulsory military service.

“Serge was the only person I’ve ever known who liked the service militaire,” said Jane. “He learnt to drink in the army. I think, timid thing that he was, that he found that if he had a little bit too much to drink he was funny – he was the one standing on the chair telling jokes whereas before he would have gone red with shyness – and that he could suddenly have chums and take a girl out without being too worried.”

Lucien had been offered an officership, merely on the grounds of having been evidently better-educated than the other recruits, but he turned it down, preferring to stay in the rank and file. It might not have been as glamorous as the French Foreign Legion that Cole Porter had once belonged to, but the 93rd Regiment at Charras was, he said, “a universe of men. We talked dirty, strummed our guitars, sang stupid stuff and visited whores.” And, since he didn’t get sent off to Algeria to fight, he had the time and opportunity to hone his skills in all of the above areas. He would perform on the guitar for his fellow recruits, making up dirty songs as he went along. He would amuse his new pals with his art college skills, drawing “hyper-réaliste” erotic pictures for them, then sit down and write passionate love letters to Elisabeth – once getting so worked up by his own skilful prose and artwork that he made an abortive attempt at deserting in order to make love to her. A short spell in the cooler was the result. But the 12 months passed quickly and, despite his protestations that he had tired of the never-ending competition – who could fart the loudest, drink the most, tell the the filthiest jokes – and that the promiscuity there depressed him, it was almost with reluctance that he took off his uniform and left the universe of men to go back home. “I went into the French army having never touched a drop of alcohol in my life,” he would later claim, “and I left 13 months later, an alcoholic.”

* * *

After their marriage in November 1951, life for Lucien and Elisabeth was starting to get markedly less bohemian. Whereas in the past they had lived in hotel rooms, at one time finding the celebrated French singer Leo Ferré their temporary next-door neighbour, at another sleeping in the very same room where Verlaine had fucked Rimbaud, they were now settled into an apartment in the Maison Des Réfugies Israelites. Both were working as teachers, Lucien giving art lessons to the young children of holocaust survivors at the nearby school.

“It was a boarding school,” said Jane, “and some of them couldn’t go home, and he knew conjuring tricks and would make them all sing. He would also make little paintings for the class and he knew how to frame them. He was like the Pied Piper – the children followed him everywhere. They loved that he would do things other grown-ups would never have dared to do. Because he always stayed childlike; that’s what the mischievous attempt to always shock people was all about.”

He was still studying art, as well as teaching it, and making some extra money colourising black and white movie photos for the local cinema and decorating fake Louis XIII furniture. But this wasn’t enough to stop the workaholic Joseph to continue to come to him with offers of jobs as a musician. And these jobs were somewhat more upmarket than the wedding-and-bar-mitzvah circuit he had played prior to doing military service – piano-playing gigs in Parisian bars and nightclubs that Joseph had taken on to do himself, only to find he had double-booked himself elsewhere.

Being his father’s stand-in paid more than teaching and painting. It also, he quickly discovered, had several other advantages; among them drinking and smoking on the job, getting to hear some great performers (Billie Holiday, Dizzy Gillespie, Art Tatum, Django Reinhardt) and finding himself in what he must have felt was the unlikeliest of positions of becoming a sexual magnet for the female clientele. So it did not take much persuasion on his father’s part for him to agree to sit the exam to join SACEM – the French songwriters’ society – in 1954, the same year that his twin Liliane married and moved to Casablanca and became an English teacher. He passed, graduating to playing summer seasons at the smart Northern coastal resort of Le Touquet. Now that he was away from home, he had plucked up the courage to croon along on his repertoire of French and American standards, Gershwin and Cole Porter, Charles Aznavour and Leo Ferré. His performances went over particularly well with the women, who would approach his piano with requests, not all of them musical. “Being a bar-pianist,” he said, “is the best education” – musically, sexually and alcoholically.

The art teaching had long since fallen victim to Lucien’s new way of life, as had his painting. Finally his marriage followed suit. In 1957, after his third summer in a row in the Club De La Fôret in Le Touquet, Elisabeth filed for divorce. The reason cited on her application to dissolve the marriage was Lucien’s adultery (in particular with an unnamed Englishwoman, the wife of a wealthy sweets manufacturer). That the bohemian artist she had married now wore a sharp suit and no longer touched a paintbrush would probably not have been recognized by the French courts of the time as legitimate grounds for divorce.

His reason for giving up painting, he told Rock & Folk magazine, was “I wanted to have an artistic genius, and all I had was talent.” Said Jane, “He was a rather sweet painter, but he wanted to be avant-garde. He realized that it wasn’t avant-garde, that it wasn’t good enough, so he broke one of his paintings over his first wife’s head. He gave me the half of it, which stupidly I’ve lost – it was on a piece of wood, not very thick, thankfully, so it wouldn’t have hurt too much – and it was fairly classical with a rather beautiful, sort of Renoir-ish girl on it. But he had to be the best, and with painting he knew what was the best and that wasn’t it.

“I think the thing he admired most was painting. I remember when I was in the Orangerie restaurant with Serge and my father and I said ‘There’s Francis Bacon over there’. Serge said ‘How do you know?’ I said, ‘Because I’ve seen pictures of him in London and I’ve also seen his paintings and he looks exactly like one of his self-portraits.’ Serge said, ‘So go and ask him for an autograph then’. He gave me a 100F note, and I went up to his table and said ‘Are you Francis Bacon?’ and he said he was and very sweetly wrote his autograph for Serge. I think they would have got on very well; they were not dissimilar – both very shy and sweet – and Serge adored Bacon’s paintings.’ He especially adored their power – he had read once that after the opening of one of Bacon’s exhibitions, two men killed themselves. ‘He said if he couldn’t be Francis Bacon he’d tear up his stuff. Serge was not a modest man, therefore he didn’t want to be a second class painter; he wanted to be a first-class songwriter.”

In the summer of 1954, Lucien registered the first six songs he had written – “sophisticated, cynical songs mostly, about not being loved, that he didn’t dare to sing himself,” said Jane. Among them were ‘Les Amours Perdues’ (‘The Lost Loves’) and ‘Défense D’Afficher’ (‘No Bill Stickers’) which would be covered in 1959 by Juliette Gréco and Pia Colombo respectively. The two women – Gréco the strikingly beautiful existentialist vamp, with her white face, black hair, heavy eye make-up, and big black, beatnik sweater and tapered pants; Colombo less successful but with the same sense of Left Bank cool – came out of the Rive Gauche scene which had sprung up, after Paris was liberated from the Germans, around the cellar nightclubs in Saint-Germain-des-Près to become the centrepoint of the post-war spirit of freedom and creativity. He adored Gréco, and was terrified of her too; in his early days of playing nightclubs he had spotted her in the audience but couldn’t get the courage to approach her. He’d tried calling her office once in the hope she would sing a song of his, but he was given the brush-off; he was just another unknown.

As he was filling in the registration form at SACEM, Lucien decided he would change his name. “I never felt right in my name,” he said. People were always mispronouncing or misspelling Ginsburg – as they had done since Joseph had become a naturalized Frenchman. Doubtless there was still baggage too left over from the days when to have a Jewish name meant trouble. But his first name was the one he was happiest to lose. Before he could get anywhere as a serious songwriter, he concluded, Lucien – and Lulu – must die.

“He thought it was a loser’s name,” said Jane. “He said it reminded him of hairdressers – they were always called Lucien. Serge, he thought, sounded more Russian. And he chose Gainsbourg because he loved the English painter Gainsborough. Lucien Ginsburg was this shy Jewish refugee who thought he was ugly and who the prostitutes used to scream at because he looked so young. Serge Gainsbourg was like putting on a suit of armor. Afterwards, little by little, he started to sing his songs himself. He was very frightened. He couldn’t remember his own words because they were so clever, so he wrote them down on a piece of paper, and when his hands would shake so much in front of the chic nightclub audiences he would roll the paper up into a little ball and chuck it at them and they’d burst into applause. He appeared arrogant, but it was because he was really so terribly shy.”

Excerpted from "Serge Gainsbourg: A Fistful of Gitanes" (new expanded edition) by Sylvie Simmons, available exclusively on Kindle at

By Sylvie Simmons

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