A muse of Pablo Picasso, the first woman to own a nightclub in Paris and adored by her fans- but Suzy Solidor is all but forgotten today.
The self-made celebrity made her name by wowing the hip crowds in Paris during the 1930s with her lesbian erotic songs and became the most painted woman in the world.
But why was she almost erased from history?
Former opera singer Jessica Walker brings Suzy back to life in All I Want Is One Night .
The play-with-songs comes to Wilton’s Music Hall from Tuesday, June 27 to Saturday, July 1.
We sat down with it’s creator and star, Jessica, to find out more.
How did you discover Suzy’s story?
I saw her name in an article in The Guardian and given I specialise in unearthing stories about historic female performers I was quite surprised I didn’t know who she was.
When I read about her in a cursory way it seemed she had an extraordinary life and been extremely famous in her life time.
I wanted to redress that she had been wiped from public consciousness.
Everything about her is in French so my research was quite difficult.
But it became evident she had been a remarkable woman and a very modern woman living in Paris in the 30s and was a huge star.
She was also very entrepreneurial. She was the first woman to have her own nightclub in Paris. She came from nothing. She was an illegitimate Breton girl.
She was a fashion icon and artists’ muse, painted 225 times and she sang surrounded by her portraits by people like Francis Bacon.
She was mainly gay, she did have some relationships with men, and sang these erotic lesbian songs which I have written English versions of.
What did you like about her story?
You look at the past and now and I thought it was interesting to tell this story today because we think we are so sophisticate and fluid.
It’s very fashionable to be gender fluid and that seems to be very much in the public consciousness at the moment. But here was this woman completely setting her own parameters in 1930s Paris.
She never defined herself or felt the need to say what she was. She was very liberated and had huge mainstream success singing lesbian songs.
I tried to think of whether anybody could do that today and I’m not sure they could. Not in the same way.
We have people like Lady Gaga flirting with that but it is always about marketing. They are not just being that and celebrating it. It is all rather cynical.
So I found her to be very exciting in a contemporary way.
What is the strangest fact you unearthed?
The fact she was a double agent in the Second World War.
She was made to leave France at the end of the war because she appeared in front of a committee who accused her of collaborating with the Nazis.
Indeed I think she did do that but also she was responsible for getting a lot of people out of France and getting them false papers. I think she was working for both sides, which would stand to reason for someone with her personality. She very much lived for herself.
So she wasn’t a baddie then?
No definitely not. In Paris at that time if you wanted to keep your club open you had to let Germans come and really look after them. So if you didn’t want to lose your livelihood you had to collaborate.
It’s easy for us to look and think ‘they should have left’ but that isn’t easy and it’s not all black and white.
How did you develop it into a show?
I spent about two years on it. I worked with the Royal Exchange Theatre
I didn’t want to do a straight biography because that would be a bit dull. And I’m nothing like her. I really wanted people to hear the songs but also show the difficulties for a woman like that of getting old. If you are considered a beauty and painted by everybody what happens when you lose your looks and get fat?
I thought that chimed in very well with a lot of conversations today about older woman in the media not being on TV any more.
And I think it is quite a depressing thing because we haven’t gotten anywhere with it. It is still a problem. One that is addressed by people having Botox and trying to look young instead of ageing with grace.
Do you identify with her at all?
I’m drawn to queer stories as it's expressing parts of myself (Jessica married her wife Rebecca two years ago).
I don’t think she would have had as much success today.
It’s hard for woman. The big lesbian celebrities today tend to be cosy. They don’t tend to be sexy people.
To be very unashamedly full of desire is still a bit of an embarrassment.
So how did Suzy get away with it?
She just didn’t care. And Paris was a massive melting pot for experimentation where everything was alright.
Does it feel different now you are married?
It’s good to feel accepted and as legitimate as everyone else. I never thought I would get married but I think it is incredibly important to take these rights when you have them.
What can the audience expect from the show?
It’s done like a night in her club. So the audience are the people who have come to the club. She talks to them and shares her thoughts and feelings.
That’s framed by her as an old lady in her antique shop being painted for the last time before she died.
Are the songs all originals?
She had a very big hit with the song Lili Marlene in 1942 years before Marlene Dietrich’s version came out.
It went all the way around the word but then was completely eclipsed.
Everybody knows who Marlene Dietrich is but nobody knows who Suzy Solidor is. Which is very interesting.
Why do you think that is?
History is kind to some and not others.
Dietrich managed her image a lot better and was a lot more versatile and moved with the times. Also she rejected her earlier work and became an activist.
Solidor definitely had a shadow cast over her by the collaborator claims- which she never recovered from.
What happened to Suzy?
She ended up in the south of France and sold antiques from an annex in her home. She drank way to much whiskey and got fat and quite unpleasant.
She still managed to be surrounded by young girls, so she never quite lost her charms. But in the end she just sat surrounded by dusty antiques drinking, which is quite a sad end.
Wilton’s Music Hall, Tuesday, June 27 to Saturday, July 1, £12.50-£20
Buy tickets here
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