The Artist Birthday Series


Today’s Artist Birthday: Mistinguett

Mistinguett (5 April 1875 – 5 January 1956) was a French actress and singer, whose birth name was Jeanne Florentine Bourgeois. She was at one time the highest-paid female entertainer in the world.

The girl that started it all, Mistinguett (undated photo)
The girl that started it all, Mistinguett (undated photo)

The daughter of Antoine Bourgeois, a 30-year-old day-laborer, and Jeannette Debrée, a 21-year-old seamstress, Jeanne Bourgeois was born at 5 Rue du Chemin-de-Fer (today Rue Gaston-Israël), in Enghien-les-Bains, Val-d’Oise, Île-de-France, France. The family moved to Soisy-sous-Montmorency where she spent her childhood; her parents later worked as mattress-makers.

Main Street Souisy Sous Monfkj, 1900
Main Street Soisy-sous-Monmorency, c. 1900

At an early age Bourgeois aspired to be an entertainer. She began as a flower seller in a restaurant in her hometown, singing popular ballads as she sold blossoms. After taking classes in theatre and singing, she began her career as an entertainer in 1885. One day on the train to Paris for a violin lesson, she met Saint-Marcel, who directed the revue at the Casino de Paris. He engaged her first as a stage-hand, and here she began to pursue her goal to become an entertainer, experimenting with various stage-names, being successively Miss Helyett, Miss Tinguette, Mistinguette and, finally, Mistinguett.

Poster for one of Mistinguett's early performances at the Casino de Paris, before her superstar status.
Poster for one of Mistinguett’s early performances at the Casino de Paris, before her superstar status.

Bourgeois made her debut as Mistinguett at the Casino de Paris in 1895 and went on to appear in venues such as the Folies Bergère, Moulin Rouge and Eldorado. Her risqué routines captivated Paris, and she went on to become the most popular French entertainer of her time and the highest paid female entertainer in the world, known for her flamboyance and a zest for the theatrical.

Poster for Mistinguett's spectacular show at the Moulin Rouge, mid 1920's
Poster for Mistinguett’s spectacular show at the Moulin Rouge, mid 1920’s

In 1919 her legs were insured for 500,000 francs (approximately $3 million by 2016 standards).

Mistinguett's multimillion dollar legs.
Mistinguett’s multimillion dollar legs.

Though Mistinguett never married, she had a son, Léopoldo João de Lima e Silva, by Brazilian diplomat Leopoldo de Lima e Silva (died 1931); the latter was a grandson of the Duke of Caxias. She also had a long relationship with Maurice Chevalier, 13 years her junior.

Mistinguett and Maurice Chevalier having a dandy time, early 1920's
Mistinguett and Maurice Chevalier having a dandy time, early 1920’s

She first recorded her signature song, “Mon Homme”, in 1916. It was popularized under its English title “My Man” by Fanny Brice and has become a standard in the repertoire of numerous pop and jazz singers, especially the well known and melancholically interpreted version by Billie Holiday.

And here is a delightful little snippet of one of the rare films remaining of Mistinguett singing live. Here she is interrupted by a spectator, and though my French is virtually non-existent, I think she says something, ever so sweetly to him, a phrase that begins with…”f,” methinks?

During a tour of the United States, Mistinguett was asked by Time magazine to explain her popularity. Her answer was, “It is a kind of magnetism. I say ‘Come closer’ and draw them to me.”

Mistinguett died in Bougival, France, at the age of 80, attended by her son, a doctor. She is buried in the Cimetière Enghien-les-Bains, Île-de-France, France.

Upon her death, writer Jean Cocteau observed in an obituary, “Her voice, slightly off-key, was that of the Parisian street hawkers—the husky, trailing voice of the Paris people. She was of the animal race that owes nothing to intellectualism. She incarnated herself. She flattered a French patriotism that was not shameful. It is normal now that she should crumble, like the other caryatids of that great and marvelous epoch that was ours”.

The beautiful, bawdy, bodacious babe, Mistinguett.
The beautiful, bawdy, bodacious babe, Mistinguett.

(Edited from:


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