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Lost and Found

Everyone can be famous for fifteen minutes quipped Andy Warhol but thirty years on, the Web can offer everyone a new kind of digital immortality, as long as someone, somewhere, remembers you in bits and bytes. The Web can perpetuate a myth like no other medium in man's history, as I discovered when I went looking for details on my grandfather, who the Internet will tell you, committed suicide, an editorial error in one film encyclopedia, which has now replicated the mistake across the planet and made it an indisputable fact.

Finding my relations isn't that difficult with the help of a search engine like Google and this morning and I’m looking for details of my grandmother. In fact, she’s not lost but is instead to be found under a favourite rose bush in her garden – a long story but she always was a little eccentric.

Anyway thanks to the Internet, her work and that of so many other European actors and producers of the twenties and thirties can easily be found on DVD from specialist movie suppliers.

In fact, this rather leaves me in a strange position, in that I only ever met my maternal grandfather, one of the great French film directors of his era, Edmond Greville, (AKA Max Montagut - which his family never knew of), once when I was very young but I can see him in one of the first French talking films, Director Rene Claire's classic ‘Under the Roofs of Paris’.

It’s rather excruciating viewing, I must confess, as was another classic film, where he starred with my grandmother, Vanda, ‘Le Million’ but cinema was new and overacting was a legacy of the silent movie days. Edmond directed many other notables, such as "'The Hands of Orlac' and 'Princess Tam Tam', which starred Josephine Baker before the war interrupted his career.

It’s ironic but my Grandfather’s autobiography is available but only in French and my command of the language has lapsed so much that unless I can find an English translation somewhere on the Web, I’ll never be able to read it.

Both grandparents led eventful lives, my grandmother, Vanda Greville (Vangen), starring in a number of films before escaping from Paris on the last train out as the Germans arrived and then working for De Gaulle in London during the war. My Grandfather, a prolific writer, hiding out comfortably in the Vichy South of France, until the Germans came looking for him and he came to England to work, directing Adam Faith in a 'Mod culture' movie called "Beat Girl". If you’ve ever seen the great Gregory Peck movie, ‘Hornblower’, that was also his work.

For some unknown reason, biographies of my grandfather have him finishing life as a suicide, which is completely untrue, as he died in hospital in Nice after contracting hepatitis.

One of the strangest things, is that Vanda, described as French cinema’s answer to Garbo, used to ‘hang-out’ with her close friend Josephine Baker and knew ‘everyone’ in the Paris of the thirties and met the father of the Luftwaffe, the dashing German fighter ace Ernst Udet. She also knew rather a lot about a Mrs Wallace Simpson and her interests before she caused a constitutional crisis with the Windsor family on this side of the channel. A television documentary attempted to coax these revelations out of her before she died but failed. It’s a shame from a historical perspective that she wouldn’t reveal more on what the media knows of as the 'China Dossier' to camera and only to family.

It was quite touching that for many years, she still used to receive personal letters from the French Foreign Minister, Maurice Schumann, who she met during the war. She used to tell us that she had volunteered to be dropped-in to France as an agent but her strong English accent convinced the SOE to send a more fluent volunteer Violette Szabo instead.

I thought I should put this information up on the Web, to supplement all the other biographical detail that floats about on the couple and their film careers.

Strangely enough. I originally looked up the Warhol quote on one biographical website and 'pulled down' the his quote as "Fifteen seconds". Only, as Alan Mather reminds me after reading my original piece, it's "fifteen minutes", which only goes to illustrate how easily the Internet can help one gets the facts complete and utterly wrong!


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