How Laurette Faces Life
Under the masculine nom de plume of Jean Despréz, Mme. Larocque-Auger keeps French-Canadian soap-opera fans in a lather, comforts the lovelorn, conducts an epic fight with critics and lives the life her wistful public expects
SEPARATED from her husband — the handsome but temperamental actor Jacques Auger — left with a ten-month-old baby and only thirty-five dollars, Laurette Larocque-Auger has realized she must make her way in Montreal by her own talents. Taking a man’s nom de plume in order to compete in a man’s world, Laurette, as Jean Despréz, has quickly risen to the top of the French-Canadian entertainment scene as a script writer. Now, fifteen years later, Laurette has everything success can bring . . . fame . . . furs . . . money . . . friends ... a charming farm near Hull, Quebec ... a comfortable town house in Notre Dame de Grâce . . . But . . . can success bring happiness if a woman Faces Life alone?
In the fraught, tremulous realm of soap opera,
Facing Life is a full-time function of women; the confrontation requires stamina, grit, the ingenuity to keep sorting out Threats to Happiness, and the bravura always to take them big. Soap opera has a vast sympathetic audience in those who also like romantic novels, movie magazines, advice
columns and a good cry at the movies. It is basically the same in any lingo including French-Canadian as it is spoken by some five million people in eastern Ontario, Quebec and neighboring New England.
Mme. Jean Desprez—née Laurette Larocque— probably works harder than any other person in the country to keep this huge French-Canadian public supplied with whatever it needs in the way of vicarious drama.
A short fiery Frenchwoman of fifty-one, with plump wrists, tiny feet, raisin-brown eyes and dyed-blond hair, Mme. Despréz has been keeping French Canada in soap opera for twenty years, fifty-two weeks a year, five times a wreek per series. At the moment she writes two series, or ten installments a week. In one, Dr. Claudine, a woman doctor faces life in a difficult profession; in the other. Jeunesse Dorée (literally, Gilded Youth), assorted bobby-soxers face life at a difficult age. Jeunesse Dorée has been running for eighteen years, and bears the unmistakable stamp
of Madame's personality. For example, traditionally in soap opera any aging process from week to week and from year to year is scarcely acknowledged, so Madame had been stuck with the same characters for more than a decade. Suddenly they filled her with ennui. Between one day’s serving and the next, therefore, she simply jumped ahead to a whole new generation wdth nice new problems.
For those who relish the romance of the past she Gallicizes a half hour of the Robin Hood legend per week for radio, translates the Radisson scripts for the French-language version of CBC’s filmed adventure series and is hard at work preparing a half-hour TV series on what she calls, “the period the most palpitating of early Canadian history,” the eighteenth century.
For those who pretend to blasé tastes she has invented a weekly TV quiz game called Faites Vos Jeux—the traditional casino command to gamblers to "make your plays”—based on roulette and played with real chips and a real croupier. She fur-
nishes all the questions for the quiz and stands by personally on the studio floor every Sunday to see that the participants maintain the correct standard of glitter and sophistication.
For those who thrill to real-life drama she conducts an agony column in Photo Journal, a Frenchlanguage weekly. To the tune of ten columns a week she advises Sad Star to give her drunken boyfriend the gate. Broken Heart to shun schoolgirl crushes and Tra-Ia-la-li, who has confessed to her fiancé that she’s had an illegitimate child, not to admit she's actually had three.
By way of blanketing the market, she also appears frequently as a TV panelist, does radio interviews, writes plays and romantic fiction, lectures on women’s rights and makes mild attacks on motherhood, fatherhood and the clergy on the grounds that French-Canadian youth is too repressed. As a final touch she wrote the scenario for the first full-length French motion picture filmed in Canada, Le Père Chopin.
Jn the insular world of
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Rejected by the critics, Madame flung down her cheque and told them all to go buy a drink
Frcnch-Canadian entertainment it’s likely that Mme. Desprez would he well known for these activities alone.
But Madame has another hold on her wistful fans: she Faces l ife . . . bravely, openly and in precisely the tradition she
has helped to create in her soap operas.
For example, the night of her legal separation from her husband, actor Jacques Auger, in 1942, she made a grand entrance, alone, into one of their group’s regular haunts, bought a round of drinks
and thereby served notice that she was gamely carrying on. On the other hand she has repeatedly written parts into her scripts for Auger. She often says she considers him to have one of the top acting talents in French Canada.
Great spirit, in fact, is apparent in every gesture Mme. Despréz makes. Hcr talk is all cadenza—a pell-mell Gallic improvisation of voice, eyebrows, hands and shoulders. Faced with an English audience she’s apt to say, as she once did to some soup salesmen, “I don’ speak very good English, so if 1 speak a word of French you will forgive me and if 1 see you do not understand me I will use my hands.” She dresses with actress-y elegance and is famous for her massed arrays of bangles, her four-inch cigarette holders, her smoked glasses and her headgear. This may take the form of a generous length of goods wound freehand into an exotic turban; or it may be a hat of her own wild devising, reblocked from an outmoded model with puffs of tulle, flowers, birds ad lib.
With the same kind of extravagance she will pick up the dinner tab for thirtytwo guests Au 400, the stylish showbusiness rendezvous, or personally adopt the sailors in an entire overseas mess, as she did during World War II. She has arranged so many treats, comforts and entertainments for the wounded in the military hospital at Ste. Anne de Bellevue that the Canadian Legion gave her a medal in 1947.
Her displeasure can be equally lavish. On one occasion she decided the male actore in one of her soap operas were getting sloppy. After a warning went unheeded she simply went to the typewriter and killed all the males in a plane crash. She spent the next two weeks writing a new cast of men into the story line.
A little over a year ago she concluded, even more explosively, a long-standing public feud with all the dramatic critics in Quebec. The denouement was speeded by their unanimous panning of Anastasia, a French version of the Broadway hit, which Madame had directed. In print, on the air and from a box in the theatre during the play’s run Madame, herself a member of the local critics’ circle, impugned the critics’ credentials, one by one and in detail. By way of response, the critics’ circle returned the latest installment of Madame’s dues and politely told her she was no longer a member.
At this juncture a mischievous CBC producer invited Mme. Despréz and three of the critics to appear together on Prise de Bec, a French network version of Fighting Words.
The show was memorable. Mme. Despréz repeated all her — very explicit — charges, added some more and ended by swearing she would quit the theatre forever and, furthermore, would have nothing to do with any drama critic ever again. Then she flung down the rejected membership cheque and told the critics to go buy themselves a drink.
The show was, in fact, so memorable that a reprise of it was included in a special CBC anniversary telecast last September as one of the highlights of its five years of TV operation.
Madame followed up her outburst by resigning as drama critic of two Frenchlanguage publications and taking a job with a third as “Critic of the Critics.” However, she resigned this job too, four months ago; her reason, freely translated: “One would not publish intact my opinions.”
Since her exchanges, even handled cautiously, are always good copy, Ma-
(fame appears constantly in the gossip columns of the hebdomadaires, a form of weekly tabloid unique in French Canada. Ranging from Photo-Journal to Alio Police, the hebdomadaires are to FrenchCanadian showbusiness what movie magazines are to Hollywood. They are widely and avidly read, and they have helped make Mme. Desprez into une arande vedette—a top star.
Paul L’Anglais, a packager of radio and TV shows who has worked with VIme. Desprez for many years, mused recently, "She's a sort of combination Hedda Hopper and Elsa Maxwell in the community—with a little bit extra of her own thrown in.”
The little bit extra obviously includes her tempestuous, entirely Gallic, femininity; it also includes, in complete contrast. a formidable work capacity. She can turn out a soap-opera installment in jess than two hours under pressure and, ín twenty years, has never missed a deadjine, though she has sometimes dispatched a script to a waiting cast a page at a time, by cab. Even during a year's sojourn in Paris, in 1947. she airmailed fifteen installments a week back to Canida since she was then under contract for •hrec soaps. She has been in hospital four times for major surgery: each time, she arrived with her typewriter and started pounding out her quota as soon as she swam out of the anesthetic. Even at breakfast she improves the moment by reading the mail for her agony column. She said ruefully, not long ago. "Sometimes I am three weeks without put my nose out of doors.”
ith me, a cat is a cat”
In spite of her staggering schedule of commitments, there arc two extracurricular temptations to the typewriter that Madame cannot resist. One is a nice brisk exchange of personalities with any bf the local critics.
Criticism, in French Canada, is no mulled tender affair, as in Toronto, nor yet a matter ol careful chic, as in New York. It's an all-in scrimmage so gorgeously unrestrained that spectators just can’t sta\ on the sidelines.
Almost every French-Canadian publication has at some time or other carried an Open Letter From Jean Despréz, taking issue with its particular captive critic. Madame’s language, even in her soap operas, is forthright. Actress Denise Pelletier, who played in Jeunesse Dorée for some years, said recently. "One thing, her scripts are never dull: you read them on the broadcast, you suddenly realize what you have just said, you wonder (the Pelletier eyes roll significantly) il they have just cut you off the air. Madame herself says, "With me. a cat is a cat.” Her critical expressions, therefore, are always blunt and frequently biographical. They resist translation into English but she has, for example, described one critic in print as, approximately, “a little ass with long ears," and said flatly ot others, "They write trash.”
Madame, who has always been frank in describing her soap operas as hack work, is also drawn to the typewriter from time to time to write serious plays. A couple of these have won awards and at least one, an original version of Mayerling, was a commercial and critical success.
But her most famous play—and probably the most celebrated incident in her life—was a debacle called La Cathédrale . . . (The suspension periods indicate the origin of the title: Debussy's La Cathédrale Engloutie.)
She produced the play herself in October 1949 with an all-star cast from the
stage and her own soap operas. She spared no expense up to seventeen thousand dollars. The backdrop was of velvet ordered by telephone from France; the gowns were created by a top Montreal couturier; one set featured a live rock garden stretching from the footlights to the front seats; the ladies of the cast wore so many diamonds, sapphires and pearls, specially designed, that the stagehands kept stumbling over the Brinks men backstage.
The play itself concerned the idealistic youngest son of a nouveau-riche Mont-
real family who felt misunderstood by everybody and betrayed by everything until the family housemaid taught him the eternal verities. The cast included an exceptionally worldly priest, several representatives of the underworld and the first homosexual ever to be portrayed on a Montreal stage. The advance ads specified "adults only.”
Opening night lasted from eight-thirty till seven minutes past one.
The next day the critics declared open season on Mme. Desprez. One wrote snidely that at least La Cathédrale . . .
was better than Jeunesse Dorée; another wrote that it was Jeunesse Dorée, only condensed from ten years to four hours. A pair from one paper reported they'd covered the shows in relays, one spelling the other. In its entirety, Roland Coté’s review in Le Canada read, 77» vu 'La Cathédrale . . .' J'ai vu 'La Cathédrale . . s'engloutir." which may be rendered thus: "I saw The Cathedral ... 1 saw it swamp."
By the second day Madame had been called everything from Communist to Jezebel and had begun to fight back. She
went to the archbishop of Montreal, who had read the script in advance, and won permission for the Roman Catholic clergy to attend; then she went to the newspapers and, when they wouldn’t accept the dispensation as news, took ads inviting the clergy to attend and offering the archbishop’s phone number for confirmation. She also bought radio time.
At every performance she gave a little speech denouncing the critics and, when two hundred youths came along one night to break up the show, announced before the curtain that if they would sit tight till the play was over she would then deliver herself up to them. Actually they all ended up at a local nightclub buying each other drinks.
Madame also gave an interview to Le Petit Journal in which she said it was very simple: the critics were jealous because she made a lot of money in radio. Le Petit Journal then polled the critics, who said things like, “Everybody can make a mistake. Mme. Despréz believed she had written a good stage play and I, I believed that Mme. Despréz was well brought up.”
The natural result of all this was that the house was sold out for two weeks solid and Madame even made some money; the play would probably have lasted six months if the theatre had been still available.
A second, equally natural result was that when, in 1956, the critics panned Anastasia, which Madame had directed, she decided it was a grudge fight. Her counterattack followed the lines she had already laid down and culminated in her farewell to the critics’ circle during the unforgettable Prise de Bec, on TV. She got eleven thousand letters after the broadcast only three of which, she reports, accused her of cold hysteria.
She also reports, innocently, that she’s been making up little scenes to play since she was four.
Laurette Larocque grew up in Hull, where her parents had a stationery shop; got into amateur theatre in her teens, was a local star by the time she was twenty and got engaged to her leading man, Jacques Auger, at twenty-two. She
followed him to Paris, where they were married, and studied for three years at the Sorbonne with a view to becoming a stage director. When the couple returned to Canada she established a drama school in Montreal and another in Ottawa and split her time between them; Auger, meanwhile, quickly became a star of French-Canadian theatre. They were separated in 1942, ten months after the birth of their daughter, Jacqueline.
Presently Laurette returned to full-time acting in Montreal and, after a five-dollar performance in one radio play, happended to ask the author how much he had earned for his script. “Twenty-five dollars,” he told her. Using two fingers, she pecked out some plays of her own on a rented typewriter and tried to peddle them. Her first break came when Lever Brothers ran a contest for a new soap opera. Her entry under her own name was rejected because she was a woman; her entry as Jean Despréz won the contest. She has never had to beg for work since.
Madame’s office is a study in a threestory brick town house she bought last fall and redecorated herself in moderne style. She shares it with her daughter Jacqueline and two Belgian maids.
She waves aside queries about her annual income, but one educated guess puts it close to thirty thousand dollars. “But I give it all away ... to the sick, to the poor, to my friends less fortunate,” she says, and adds thoughtfully, “1 work so hard 1 ought to be rich.”
“Her energy is fantastic,” commented producer Paul L’Anglais recently. “1 think it is frustration. She has a great capacity for love, and for work. She has had to pour it all into the work.”
Madame has her own version of the brave voyage: “1 live only for my daughter, who gives me very great joy.”
But Jacqueline is sixteen and already beginning to make her own life as a student painter at the Beaux Arts. Must Laurette Face Life all over again . . . still alone? Can she ever hope to find the happiness every woman seeks? Dare she let herself believe that Life Can Be Beautiful? ★