La Plus Belle Femme De France: The Charm Of Agnès Souret

Born in Biarritz on 21st January 1902, with her wavy chestnut hair and large dark eyes, Jeanne Germaine Berthe Agnès Souret, known as Agnès, had a charm that encapsulated prevailing European standards of beauty during the early twentieth century. After her birth, there was some confusion about her father’s identity, and her mother Marguerite was unemployed and unmarried, something that would later be covered up by press reports that she had in fact been a ballet dancer. In early childhood, Agnès and her mother moved to the village of Espelette in the Aquitaine region.

At the age of 17, Agnès, who had reached a height of 1.68 m, won a beauty contest and was crowned Miss Midi-Pyrénées; and as result, her photograph was entered into the first ever Miss France competition, launched by the newspaper Le Journal in an attempt to discover ‘the most beautiful woman in France’ along with a letter written by Agnès, which read ‘I am only 17 years old, tell me if I have to cross France to take a chance.’ Over 2,000 young women were put forward as contestants and the rigorous and widespread voting system saw more than 200,000 votes cast, with Agnès receiving around 115,000. In the New York Times, she was hailed as ‘the fairest in France,’ and the journalist Maurice De Waleffe wrote that Agnès realised ‘the ideal’ of ‘French charm.’

With her new title came fame and Agnès regularly featured in contemporary French magazines and advertisements; she also danced at The Folies Bergère and appeared at The Opéra de Monte-Carlo. Agnès idolised the great Parisian stage actress Sarah Bernhardt and dreamt of following in her footsteps. In 1920, Agnès starred in the film Le lys du Mont Saint-Michel and in La maison des pendus (1921) both directed by Henry Houry, who would go on to become a celebrated French actor himself.

Though the two films were unsuccessful, Agnès was undeterred and moved to London to perform in the revue Pins and Needles in the West End. Despite only having a small part, she attracted the attention of the American film studio executive Joseph M. Schenck, who invited her to Hollywood for some screen tests. She failed to earn any further film roles, but in 1922, Agnès was asked to write a book about how she maintained her fabulous face and figure, and The Famous Book of Beauty Secrets was published that year. Returning to France, Agnès briefly worked at a milliners.

As the 1920s wore on, the innocent and natural attractiveness Agnès represented began to seem hopelessly old fashioned compared to the daring flappers and sultry silent movie stars. Consequently, she found herself less and less in demand with stage roles becoming few and far between.

In September 1928, she accepted a job touring Argentina with a theatrical company; soon after her arrival, she was struck down with peritonitis, to which she tragically succumbed. So that her daughter’s body could be brought home to France, Marguerite sold her house in Espelette; Agnès was buried in the village where she grew up and had left behind when she became Miss France. A glowing obituary appeared in Le Figaro, not only praising her stunning beauty but stating that Agnès had, more importantly, also been blessed with ‘that precious and rare gift among all gifts, a happy character.’

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