Catherine Deneuve: QUITE A Few Things You Didn't Know

Catherine Deneuve Loves Fancy Shoes, Hates Her Last Name, Is As Private as Garbo, Becomes the Face of Chanel, Splurges on Houseplants, and Makes Mick Jagger Her Best Man.

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Catherine Deneuve.  The name alone invokes mystery.

And the woman herself even more so.  Since stunning international audiences with her beauty and talent in 1964’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Catherine Deneuve remains an enigma.  Despite over half a century in the public eye, Catherine has somehow managed to keep her private life just that, private.  There is virtually no in-depth information available about the French beauty.  Particularly if you don’t speak French.

As a long-time fan of her work, style, and timeless beauty, I’ve found it beyond frustrating to barely have any sort of idea who Catherine Deneuve really is behind the frequently icy blonde exterior of her film roles.  I imagine many others feel the same way.

Figuring Out Catherine Deneuve

So this month, in celebration of Deneuve’s October 22nd birthday, I decided to do the work.  

After countless hours of research, scouring archives for Deneuve interviews ranging from 1960-2020—with papers and magazines as niche as the Slovak Moment; working through language barriers—Catherine is trilingual (!!!); to analyzing the at times questionable memoirs of Catherine’s longtime partner Roger Vadim; to attempting to glean gems of actual Deneuve information from dry academia on her stardom, here is my portrait of the cinematic legend who must be the only actress ever to get away with publishing her “private diaries” [aff. link] without divulging a single personal thought or detail.  (Unless you’re really reading between the lines.)

Frustrated Deneuve fans, look no further.  Here are a few things about Catherine Deneuve you didn’t know: 

The Dorleac Family: Francoise, Sylvie, Catherine, Danielle, with parents Maurice and Renee.

She Had a Bourgeois Upbringing

Catherine Deneuve grew up to lead a very unconventional life.  But, similar to fellow French icon Brigitte Bardot, Catherine’s upbringing was quite traditional.  Catherine Fabienne Dorleac was born October 22, 1943 in Paris, the third of four sisters.  (Growing up in a house full of sisters is, according to Catherine, the reason why she talks so fast, even today!)  Her oldest sister, Danielle, was actually a half-sister: Catherine’s father, Maurice Dorleac, saved her mother Renee’s reputation by marrying her when Danielle’s paternal father wouldn’t, perhaps the only untraditional element in the Dorleac household.  Of all her sisters, it was Francoise, only 19 months older, that Catherine was exceptionally close to.

Roger Vadim, Catherine’s future partner and the father of her son, observed that Mr. and Mrs. Dorleac were “rather strict,” and sent their daughters to Catholic school.  Catherine later rejected the faith, but credits this early education for her strong, if unconventional, moral foundation, a foundation that helped her navigate the difficult waters of stardom.  

Young Catherine.

No Cinema

Ironically, though Maurice and Renee Dorleac had each been actors, and two of their daughters later became stars of the French cinema, Catherine shared in a 2008 interview that movies and theater were not a part of her childhood:

“My mother brought us up very normally and very seriously, and cinema was not part of our family life.”

Part of family life or not, it wasn’t long before Catherine had her first experiences working in the movies.

She Never Planned to Become An Actress

Growing up, Catherine dreamed of being just about anything besides an actress.  Through the years, Catherine has said she aspired to be a graphic artist, an interior designer, or even an archeologist.  But never an actress.

So when the opportunity arose for her to play a bit part in Jacques Poitrenaud’s 1960 film, The Door Slams, sixteen-year-old Catherine agreed not out of ambition, but curiosity.  As Catherine shared about this early role in a 2005 interview with The Telegraph, 

“I was not particularly attracted to the idea [of acting].  But curiosity made me go for it.  My mother wasn’t too keen, but because shooting fell in the school holiday she let me do it.  In retrospect, though, I  think I was a little too young.”

Catherine with her sister, Francoise.

Her Sister Was The Star. And They Were Exceptionally Close

Catherine and her older sister Francoise were extremely close.  Roger Vadim says in his 1986 memoir that though the two sisters were just over a year and a half apart in age, they “loved each other like twins.”

Though Catherine Deneuve became an international superstar, it was Francoise who first found fame as an actress.  Roger Vadim said the success of her sister was one of the reasons Catherine didn’t initially pursue an acting career herself.  The outgoing, vivacious, and beautiful Francoise seemed a born star, while the quieter, more introspective Catherine, according to Vadim:

“..was convinced that she was just a pale reflection of her older sister, whom she admired, adored and respected without being jealous.”

Catherine in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964).

The Retiring Wallflower

Catherine wasn’t the only one who viewed herself as the retiring wallflower to her sister’s shining star.  Vadim observed that the first time he met Catherine, dancing at a club with Francoise, that

“I was the only one who found her more beautiful than her sister.  Ten years later, the  press would refer to her as ‘the most beautiful woman in the world.’  [But] I didn’t need the silver screen and the photos that would one day be distributed all over the world by Chanel to realize that her delicate nose, her intense but slightly cold expression, her mouth with the finely drawn lips…were the very image of romantic beauty.”

Looking at Catherine Deneuve, it’s hard to believe that she was ever not considered the great beauty of the Dorleac sisters…but there you go: for the first two decades of Catherine’s life, it was Francoise.

But after her breakthrough performance in 1964’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg [aff. link], the introverted Catherine found her place in cinema, and easily eclipsed her sister’s success.

Catherine with Francoise in The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967).

Losing Her One Confidant

Catherine and Francoise famously starred together in 1967’s The Young Girls of Rochefort.  But just as Catherine reached a new zenith in her career with her next film, Bell de Jour (1967), Francoise tragically died.  Driving to the airport, Francoise lost control of her car and ran into a signpost before the car flipped over and ignited.  Francoise’s struggles to escape the flames were futile.  She was ultimately identified by fragments of her checkbook and dairy.

Catherine never recovered from the death of her beloved sister.  On the rare occasion that Catherine opens up about Francoise in interviews, it’s very touching.  Young Catherine, just two years after her sister’s untimely passing, shared with Life magazine that 

“I’m very much for maintaining a certain distance, a certain formality between me and others—even people I really love…the only human being I could tell everything was my sister Francoise.  She and I were so diametrically different; put together we would have been a fantastic woman.”

There’s no question that Francoise’s death was one of the great tragedies of Catherine’s life.

She Doesn’t Like Her Last Name

Catherine Dorleac first became “Catherine Deneuve” out of respect for her sister Francoise.  “Francoise Dorleac” was already a big name in French cinema by the time Catherine began doing her own bit film roles.  As Vadim put it, Catherine decided to use her mother’s maiden name, “Deneuve,” so that Francoise could be “the only Dorleac of her generation.”

Never imagining that she herself would be the Dorleac sister to become the screen legend, Catherine later regretted her choice of last name:

“If I had to do it again, I wouldn’t make that decision!  I love my mother dearly but I don’t like her maiden name.  It’s hard to pronounce, I prefer my real name…I didn’t see it as a permanent thing.  I didn’t think I would keep working in film.  My head was completely elsewhere.”

Catherine with her natural brunette hair, 1961.

Catherine Deneuve: Not Always A Blonde

Catherine Deneuve made a name for herself as the quintessential, sophisticated, icy blonde, but she was born a brunette.

When Roger Vadim met the seventeen-year-old Catherine, he described her as having “shoulder-length brown hair.”  According to Vadim, Catherine didn’t go blonde until the early 1960s, when she became serious about acting, and believed that being blonde would help her career.

But Catherine tells a different story.

Catherine says she became a blonde for her first love, Roger Vadim.

Deneuve was only seventeen when she moved in with the 32 year-old Vadim, the man who famously married Brigitte Bardot, directed her in the revolutionary …And God Created Woman (1956), and, as many believed, created Bardot’s sensual persona by molding her into his ideal of the perfect woman.

Bardot was blonde, Vadim created her blonde image, and Catherine loved Vadim.  So she decided to go blonde herself. As Catherine related in a 2008 interview:

“I did it only because I thought it would make me more seductive to the man I loved.  It seems the silliest thing now, but I was so young and in love.”

What started out as “a gesture of love,” in Catherine’s words, at the end of the day was good for her career, and for the most part, Catherine Deneuve has remained a blonde in varying shades ever since.

Catherine was only nineteen when her son, Christian, was born.

She Wanted to Be a Young Mom

In 2005, when asked about becoming a mother at such a young age, Catherine shared that 

“I had always known that I wanted to have children very young.” 

Roger Vadim underscores Catherine’s desire to become a mother at a young age:

“When I met her, Catherine had two secret ambitions: to be a mother and to become an actress.”

During their three-year relationship, Catherine achieved both of those ambitions.  Motherhood came first, when at age nineteen, Catherine’s and Vadim’s son Christian was born.  

It was 1963, and they were not married, quite scandalous for the time.

Catherine and Vadim shade baby Christian on a walk.

A Second-Time Mom

In a 1969 interview with Life, Catherine said that 

“I want many more children.I believe one can manage all—have a great career and a happy family life with a man, children, and all.”

The famously private Catherine doesn’t share, well, anything, about her four-year relationship with Italian legend Marcello Mastroianni, but he fathered her second and final child, daughter Chiara, in 1972.  Similar to her long-term relationship with Roger Vadim, Catherine and Marcello never married.

Catherine with daughter Chiara.

The importance she places on privacy keeps Catherine from sharing much about her partners or children, but she is reportedly very close with her son, daughter, and now, grandchildren.  Daughter Chiara has played Catherine’s onscreen daughter in several films over the years, but describes their offscreen relationship as “so intimate that it never resembles something you  put on screen.” 

As a mother myself, I find that incredibly touching and sweet!

Couldn't find a pic from the wedding, but here's an awesome a pic of Mick and Catherine.

Mick Jagger Was Her Best Man

As Catherine herself has pointed out with a bit of humor, her one marriage was to a man she did not have children with.  English Photographer David Bailey photographed the reluctant Catherine for Playboy in 1965.  Bailey says he tried to make Catherine more comfortable during the photo session by telling her he was gay, which she believed…

For about 90 minutes…

The two immediately connected over a shared sense of humor, despite the language barrier, and after a whirlwind romance, married on August 18, 1965.

Catherine with David Bailey, her only husband.

"What They All Miss"

And Bailey’s pal, Mick Jagger, was their best man.

Now THAT’S a sure way to have an entertaining wedding.

The marriage ultimately ended in 1972, probably due to the fact that their busy careers kept Catherine and David from spending much time together.  And when they finally did, he didn’t know how to speak French, and she was usually too tired to speak English.  The two remain friendly however, and Bailey insists that one of Catherine’s best kept secrets is her sense of humor:

“You know what they all miss about Catherine?  Her great sense of humor.  She’s a very funny lady.  She’s [a lot of] laughs.  First-rate comedienne, but they always ask her heavy questions….so that’s all you ever read about Catherine.”

She Was Named the Most Beautiful Woman

In 1968, Look magazine named Catherine “the most beautiful woman in the world.”  It’s a title that still follows her as Catherine, age 77 as of 2020, remains a great beauty.  Catherine is gracious about the title, insisting that countless other women are awarded the same compliment, and that she’s really just like everyone else:

“I get fat and have to exercise.”

Catherine humbly shared in 1992.  And she’s very honest that

“Having to be that [beautiful] person, physically, takes effort—it doesn’t come naturally.”

When asked which of her perfect features she feels is the most beautiful, Catherine comically replied that it would have to be her left ear.

That’s AWESOME.  

And of course, who can forget Catherine’s most quotable moment, when she famously said 

“At a certain age, you have to choose between your face and your ass.”

While it’s a decision Catherine herself doesn’t seem to have had to make, it’s humor like this that makes the impossibly beautiful Catherine Deneuve somehow relatable.

She Smokes. Unashamedly.

Catherine Deneuve started smoking at age sixteen.  Although she managed to quit the habit between 1985 and 1996, and friend Juliette Binoche says Deneuve stopped smoking after her November 2019 stroke, Catherine has smoked unashamedly the majority of her life.  

An interviewer observed in a 2017 meeting with Deneuve that, because she’s Catherine Deneuve, she can pretty much smoke wherever she wants.  But Catherine’s still had her share of friends and passersby tell her about the dangers of smoking over the years.  Catherine’s explanation behind her typical response to these warnings shows a bit of her humor and classiness:

“I don’t say, ‘Mind your own business,’ I say ‘Yes, I know, thank you.’  But what kind of advice is that?  ‘You shouldn’t smoke so much.  You should stop smoking.’  Yes, of course I should, but that’s not what I’d call advice.  That’s a fact!  Give me advice on how to stop smoking without suffering.  Yes, that would be interesting.”

She’s Very Private

Even if you’ve never heard of Catherine Deneuve, you can probably surmise just by what I’ve written here that Catherine is an extremely private person.  In his 1986 memoir, Roger Vadim shared that:

“When Catherine decides not so speak, it’s useless trying to drag the smallest confidence from her.  She is sometimes an extraordinarily secretive woman.”

So secretive in fact, that Catherine sued Vadim over that very memoir he called her “secretive” in!  Their three-year relationship covers just about a third of the book, and the discreet Catherine was so not cool with it.

Catherine Deneuve: A Discreet Character

As Catherine said in a 2002 interview with The Independent:

“Discretion is part of my character.  And if it had been required of me to be more open, I’m not sure I would have stayed in film…Sometimes I see people in magazines and I think: why did you do that?  Why did you do that photo at home with your child or in your new kitchen?  I don’t do things for the public.  First for me, then for the public.  Otherwise you don’t belong to yourself.”

Catherine’s desire for privacy and discretion goes back to the start of her career when, at age seventeen and a half, and on the brink of stardom, she hired an attorney to protect her name from the stories and rumors that constantly surround film stars.

Smart move.

The Power of "The Written Word"

Part of Catherine’s reluctance to share her personal life with the press stems from her desire for privacy—she tells an interviewer, for instance, that she likes to cook, but then refuses to share what her favorite things to cook are, deeming that information “much too personal!” (Yes, that actually happened in an interview with the Slovak magazine Moment, in 2000.)

But there are other reasons she remains discreet.  Catherine’s refusal to share her private life comes from a considerate belief that her story isn’t exclusively about her, that others could be hurt if were less reserved.  She’s also smart, and wants to avoid incorrect interpretation of her words:

“Even when something seems harmless to you, it can be interpreted as cruelty, and what’s the point of that?…the power of the written word can be terrible…what frightens me [is] the written word is really cast in stone.  You can have regrets, you can deny it, say it was printed without your agreement, that your words were changed…none of that alters the fact that what’s written is written.  The printed word has the weight of absolute truth.  And this weight of truth endures longer than one could ever imagine.”

And besides, there’s a certain desirable mystique that comes with not bearing all.  Catherine wisely realizes that perhaps the Deneuve story is best left half-shrouded:

“Of course, you would want to read it if you had it…but I also think that you would be terribly disappointed.  Wouldn’t you?”

She Likes to Garden

Perhaps it seems at odds with her sophisticated screen image, but Catherine Deneuve loves to garden.  According to Catherine,

“My garden is fantastic but my hands have been ruined.  But I don’t care, I get more excited nowadays by being given a new plant than going out for dinner at a chic restaurant.  I adore gardening; close contact with nature and the countryside has always been part of my life…I love my place in the country for weekends with my children, my grandchildren and my friends.  No make-up, no glamour.”

In fact, these days, Catherine’s weak spot with money isn’t haute couture or jewelry.  When asked in a 2017 interview what frivolous item she’s most likely to spend her money on, she said:

“I buy plants.”

She Loves Shoes

When she’s not buying plants, Catherine’s other weakness is shoes.  It’s a love that has remained pretty consistent over the years.  Roger Vadim remembered that, when shopping with Catherine during her pregnancy in 1962-1963,

“We bought nothing at the maternity shops we went to, but we returned each time with a new pair of shoes.”

Hey, nothing wrong with that in my book!

In a 2006 interview with the Sunday Times, Catherine confirmed that shoes are still a particular passion:

“It’s not an obsession—that’s exaggerated—but oh, I love shoes.  I could wear a black skirt every day, but shoes?  I like to change them three times a day.”

She's An Independent Thinker

Whatever you do, don’t try to put Catherine Deneuve in a box!  As daughter Chiara told The Guardian in 2012, 

“I’m proud of my mother because she’s so independent. She never accepts anybody’s demands.  She’s a bit of a rebel, both in reality and in the films she makes.”

Catherine’s actions through the years show that regardless of society’s mores, she’s got her own thoughts and values.  And she’s sticking with them.

After the birth of her son Christian in 1963, Catherine’s partner Roger Vadim offered to marry her.  But Catherine turned him down:

Vadim offered to marry Catherine after Christian was born, but she turned him down.

“When Christian was born, when Vadim said, ‘Let’s get married, ‘ I knew his reasons were now dictated by society.  I just couldn’t accept.  When you’ve been as much in love with a man as I had been with Vadim, you can’t accept marrying him for any reason but love.”

The independent-minded Catherine sparked controversy in the press and her family by not marrying Vadim, but ultimately decided that remaining true to herself was worth it.

The Manifesto

Catherine stirred controversy again in 1972 when she signed her name to Le Manifeste des 343 salopes, or the Manifesto of the 343. The document, signed by 343 women who admitted to having illegal abortions, was meant to ease abortion legislation in France.  The signers, by confessing to illegal abortions, risked prison sentences and legal action.  But once again, when Catherine Deneuve believes in something, she sticks with it, and historians view the manifesto as paving the way towards more lenient pregnancy termination legislation in France.

The Letter

More recently, in January 2018, Catherine found herself embroiled in controversy during the #Metoo movement.  Catherine signed her name to a letter published in Le Monde, along with such cinema legends as Brigitte Bardot, stating that #Metoo had strayed from its original purpose—to publicize sexual harassment—and was now a witch hunt against even innocent men.  

It was a bold and unpopular statement with the press, and Catherine was largely criticized.  But she remained firm in her belief that #Metoo had become a “media lynching” of men, and defended her signing of the letter by explaining that there was “nothing in the [Le Monde] letter that said anything good about harassment, otherwise I wouldn’t have signed it.” 

Whether you agree or disagree with Catherine’s beliefs and actions through the years, there’s no denying that she’s remained an independent thinker.  And there’s something admirable about a person who sticks to their beliefs regardless of popular opinion.

She’s a Fashion Icon

Internationally, many are perhaps more familiar with Catherine Deneuve through her fashion influence than her films.  Catherine has set style trends since the 1960s, and been the face of countless fashion houses and cosmetic products over the years, including Yves Saint Laurent, Chanel, L’Oreal, MAC, and Luis Vuitton.  As Catherine herself once said,

“I actually think that what remains in the collective unconscious is not my film image but based on my paper-image: interviews, magazine covers…”

Chanel and Catherine Deneuve

Catherine made her first Vogue cover in 1962, even before her film career took off with 1964’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.  And she’s been a fashion icon ever since.  Her influence in the realm of fashion and cosmetics is such that as the face of Chanel between 1969-1977, sales of Chanel No. 5 skyrocketed in the United States, and Catherine was named “the world’s most elegant woman” by the US press.

Yves Saint Laurent and Catherine Deneuve

But Catherine’s most celebrated fashion impact is as a muse of Yves Saint Laurent, who also became a close friend.  Catherine modeled Saint Laurent designs in 1965, and was one of the very first stars to support his ready-to-wear line when it premiered in 1966.  

Belle de Jour

Saint Laurent designed the wardrobe for three of Catherine’s films, most famously for the classic Belle de Jour (1967) [aff. link].  Catherine appreciated Saint Laurent’s ability to, in her own words, “create an important expression of the role and even of the scene,” through his beautiful designs.  

Catherine wears Yves Saint Laurent in Belle de Jour (1967).

Saint Laurent on the other hand enjoyed an increase in sales as women sought to imitate Catherine’s look in the film: sales of Saint Laurent’s black vinyl trench coat and black dress with ivory cuffs and collar that Catherine wears in Belle de Jour soared after the film’s release, while the shoes she wears throughout the film became so identified with the role, Saint Laurent christened them “Belle de Jour” pumps.

Catherine started a fashion craze that continues today with Laurent's Belle de Jour pumps, named after the film.

Now that’s a fashion icon for you.

Catherine’s timeless look, whether wearing Yves Saint Laurent in 1967 or modeling for Louis Vuitton in 2017, continues to inspire and influence the fashion world today.

Catherine models Luis Vuitton.

She Takes On Risky Roles

Few actresses can boast playing such varied roles throughout their careers as Catherine Deneuve.  From innocent ingenues to icy blonde housewives who are secretly high-class prostitutes, from vampires to murderous manicurists, or rubber plantation owners to spunky grandmas, Catherine Deneuve has, quite literally, done it all.

Catherine as the young ingenue Genevieve in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964).

Her willingness to take on risky roles is undoubtedly why Deneuve has enjoyed such a lengthy film career, and why, as she pushes 80, Catherine remains an in-demand actress: with the exception of one small gap in her filmography between 1989-1990, Catherine has made at least one film a year since 1962, and usually more.  Her filmography, as of 2020, boasts 137 credits.

Talk about impressive!!!!

 Catherine suffered a “very limited” Ischemic stroke in November of 2019 while filming her most recent project, De Son Vivant, but even this tragedy only briefly restricted the determined actress: filming resumed in July 2020, with Catherine fully recovered.

Catherine, looking gorgeous as ever at the 2019 Venice Film Festival.

Catherine Deneuve: A Living (and Still Creating!) Legend

It seems Catherine Deneuve won’t be slowing down anytime soon.  Unlike most stars of Deneuve’s generation, the legacy of this very active, beautiful, talented, private, fashionable, enigmatic cinema legend is still being written.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Chef Mimi

    She was, and is still so beautiful. And so classy. When I was pregnant in 1983, she was on SNL and they did a spoof with her on a Chanel ad. I have never laughed so hard in my life. It was hormones, but still. She obviously had a great a sense of humor!

    1. Shannon

      Oh my goodness that is so awesome! Yet another reason to love Catherine! So so cool. (And those Chanel ads! Absolutely gorgeous. ♥️)

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