Delphine Seyrig’s acting resumé reads like a Cahiers du Cinéma outline of crucial works of Western European cinema through three decades of history. She always viewed herself as a theatrical stage actress, and worked there frequently, but, to paraphrase John Lennon, her illustrious film career seems to have been what happened to her while she was making other plans.
Born April 10, 1932 in Beirut (in what was then the French Mandate of Syria and Lebanon, now just Lebanon), Delphine Claire Beltiane Seyrig was the daughter of Henri Seyrig, the Alsatian director of the Beirut Archaeological Society who later became the official Free French delegation cultural attaché in New York during World War II. Her mother, Hermine de Saussure, an archaeologist as well, belonged to a fervently intellectual Swiss family, and was a female sailing / yachting pioneer – she sailed the Mediterranean and the Greek Islands extensively with travel writer Ella Maillart and fellow archaeologist Martha Oulié. Delphine’s youth and adolescence thus alternated between Beirut, Greece, Paris and New York. An indifferent student, she convinced her parents to let her drop out of school to pursue acting studies at Paris’ National Academy of Dramatic Arts. After successfully training there, she made steady progress as a working actress in Paris theatre, debuting in 1952 and eventually working with renowned director Jean Dasté in Shakespeare’s The Tempest and Beaumarchais’ The Marriage Of Figaro, as well as scoring a big critical success in Jean Giraudoux’s Ondine.
Her first appearances on a screen of any kind were in two episodes of the 1954 Sherlock Holmes TV series, an American series using primarily European actors which was shot in Paris for Guild Films, produced by Sheldon Reynolds. Ronald Howard (son of Leslie Howard) was a friendly and engaging Sherlock Holmes and Howard Marion Crawford was a conventionally huffy, somewhat plummy Dr. Watson. Associate producer Nicole Milinaire was one of the first women to attain a senior production role in a television series. (These episodes, and others, can be watched on YouTube.)
In “The Mother Hubbard Case,” a small female child confides in a stranger on the street that she’s lost, and prevails on him to help her back to her home address. He, of course, graciously complies. Meanwhile, a young woman, Margaret Martini (Seyrig), has convinced her father to make an appointment with Holmes – her devoted fiancé, Richard Trevor, is missing. Holmes’ power of deduction solves the serial murders of a number of young men (Trevor among them) by an old woman who uses the girl to lure the men into uninhabited homes for robbery and poisoning.
Incidentally, Michelle Wright, who played the young girl, didn’t see the episode herself until 2010, and left the following note on IMDB:
“In 1954 my father worked in Paris for UNESCO and met Nicole Milinaire who was looking for an English speaking young girl to take part in a TV film for the American market. My father volunteered me. I can’t say that I was thrilled with the prospect not having done anything like that before. But my protests were ignored and I was set to at learning the words, fitted for a costume, put through my paces with the cast and supervised by a chaperone. I was paid a two figure sum for my part in this production. I remember the cast I was most closely associated with quite well. As a child you remember the silliest things, like the cake that was supposed to be fudge, the birds in the cage, the doll that I carried and the kindness of the ‘policeman’ and my ‘grannie’. The script is kind of simple, the story inspired by the nursery rhyme of Old Mother Hubbard who went to the cupboard and found it bare so went about killing gentlemen so she could rob them to give her granddaughter a future. The sets are pretty basic, the location obviously French and acting is wooden at times but this chance discovery of something that happened 56 years ago has brought loads of memories back. Michele Findlay nee Wright”
In “The Case Of The Singing Violin,” Seyrig plays Betty Durham, the heiress to a tea-and-spice fortune who seems to be going mad. But she’s really being gaslit by her stepfather, Guy Durham, who murdered her father (his business partner), married her mother, then murdered her, and now aims to have Betty committed, then murdered, as well. Seyrig has a short, unnerving nighttime mad scene, and gets to do some suspenseful physical slapstick at the institution where Holmes eventually saves her. Durham’s primary mistake seems to be murdering Betty’s fiancé, Winant – that’s how Holmes enters the case.
It’s a pity both of Delphine’s episodes involved such bad luck with fiancés; she had better luck in real life. Married to the very good American artist Jack Youngerman in 1950 (like his good friend Ellsworth Kelly, his Parisian art studies were enabled by the G.I. Bill), both Jack and Delphine decided to move to New York with their young son Duncan. Clearly talented, she nonetheless scrambled for acting work in Connecticut and small Off-Broadway productions. But in a Schwab’s Drug Store miracle, one of the spectators in the audience at one of her Off-Broadway performances of Ibsen’s An Enemy Of The People was the French film director Alain Resnais. Having recently completed the celebrated Hiroshima, Mon Amour, Resnais was researching his next project – an adaptation of the Dutch pulp detective thrillers featuring Harry Dickson – and thought young Delphine might be a prospect to be one of Dickson’s arch-villains, The Spider. (The film was never made, but, fortunately, another Marguerite Duras project came up…).
Meanwhile, Delphine’s earnest efforts landed her in what turned out to be the definitive Beat Poetry film, Robert Frank and Alfred Leslie’s Pull My Daisy (USA, 1959). (The film is freely available on YouTube.) The only actual paid professional actor in the film, Delphine joined poets Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Peter Orlovsky, the painter Larry Rivers, musician David Amram (who did the film’s antic soundtrack score), the gallery director Richard Bellamy (credited as Mooney Peebles), and Robert Frank’s young son Pablo in what began as a short film of the third act of a play Jack Kerouac had written but had not yet published, The Beat Generation. This episode concerned a real-life incident whereupon Neal Cassady’s wife Carolyn invited a local religious dignitary and his family over for dinner one night, regardless of the regular visitations of Neal’s hard-partying peers.
Robert Frank is a now-legendary photographer and documentary filmmaker – his book The Americans had just been published the year before, and is justifiably considered among the finest published photo collections in modern art history. Alfred Leslie, Frank’s partner here, is primarily known as an abstract-expressionist painter, but he’s been an avid filmmaker as well. Considering the simplicity of the one-camera set-up (shot 16mm, then presumably blown up to 35mm), and the budget (or lack thereof), Frank and Leslie shoot a lovely, well-observed, if very loosely performed, rendition of Kerouac’s play. But instead of a standard recorded soundtrack of the performance, Kerouac narrates the film in an improvised voiceover – some of it is a recitation of the play’s actual lines, but he throws in his own free-associative riffs on the material, as well as some sly commentary on the performers themselves. It quite effectively lends a great deal of spontaneity to an otherwise very orderly, surprisingly well-rehearsed film.
After a brief credit-sequence-tour of Milo’s New York Bowery loft / apartment (‘Milo’ serving as stand-in for Neal), the first thing we see in the film is Milo’s wife (Delphine, billed here as simply ‘Beltiane’) opening the shutters to let in the morning, rousing, and making breakfast for, their small son Pablo, and letting in Ginsburg and Corso, who have arrived quite early to hang out, drink wine and beer, and await Milo’s arrival hours from now. Milo’s wife now bundles Pablo up and walks him to school while Ginsberg and Corso act out a pretty free-associative conversation on their own.
(In the play, the two are fellow train-workers, rather than fellow poets. Cassady worked for the Southern Pacific Railroad as, among other things, a brakeman, which is Milo’s day-job here.) Milo (Larry Rivers) comes home with his friend Peter The Saint (Orlovsky) and warns everyone to be on reasonably good behavior for their imminent guest, The Bishop. The Bishop arrives, wearing a simple white suit and hat, with his mother and sister, led upstairs by Milo’s wife, of course. The filmed conversations between the poets and the bishop seem pretty straightforward, but Kerouac’s narration slides into far hipper and expressionistic fancies than the visuals would suggest, which nonetheless works pretty well overall. The poets ask some seemingly nonsensical questions, but the bishop is portrayed with an engaged sense of good humor. Corso gets pretty drunk, Milo’s wife is unhappy with Milo, and, even with the Bishop and his family leaving a little early, it seems they were perfectly happy guests. Milo’s wife now gives him an earful, and the film ends with his leaving her in a huff to go out with his other friends.
Many who know more than I have made note of Kerouac’s (at best) casual attitudes or (at worst) outright misogyny, as reflected both in his own work and in his responses to other cultural items and events. He loves women in the abstract, but they are ultimately disposable along his journey. (“Surely, few read Kerouac today without some degree of awareness of his misogyny problem. Perhaps contemporary readers use a single squinting eye to scuttle past the objectionable passages.”) Milo’s wife is barely there in Kerouac’s play (she’s named Cora), but Frank and Leslie clearly expanded her presence for the film, and Delphine’s assured presentation of her in the film works pleasantly against the grain of the other male characters in the film. As an IMDB commenter noted, “One of the things that now puts me off is the negative depiction of women, in this film and in beat culture overall – unless they are the kind who are easily subordinated and available. Delphine Seyrig as the mother who actually feeds her son and takes him to school is the bad guy here.” As a time-capsule artwork, admire Frank and Leslie’s images and compositions (and all of those circular clockwise pans), and the ground-breaking free-spiritedness and verbal jazz of Kerouac’s more creative segments. But, boy, they, and we, took a lot of things for granted back then, too, and that should temper our appreciations today, in the late 2K-teens.
Sadly, I was unable to find the first three episodes of Pete And Gladys, the seemingly delightful early-sixties sitcom starring Harry Morgan and Cara Williams. Delphine was in those episodes as the French wife of Pete and Gladys’ neighbor Phil Martin, Michele, with whom Pete never got along. As we go along, the variety of Delphine’s work will never fail to surprise you. From Sherlock to The Beats to Hollywood sitcom, our next Project installment finds Delphine making film history – at least for the first time…