Le Temps Des Fleurs: Remembering Dalida

Yolanda Christina Gigliotti was born into an Italian family in Cairo on 17th January 1933. As the first violinist at the Cairo Opera House, her father Pietro Gigliotti instilled her and her two brothers with a appreciation for music from an early age. After attending an Italian Catholic school in the Egyptian capital, and Yolanda dreamt of becoming a model, an ambition that would be easily realised on account of her breathtaking Mediterranean beauty.

Winning the title of Miss Ondine at a beauty pageant in 1950, Yolanda was again triumphant when she competed for the crown of Miss Egypt four years later. Her new found status brought her to the attention of the French painter and film director, Marc de Gastyne, who promised to help her pursue a film career and she moved to Paris in December 1954. Changing her name to the more French sounding Dalila, she later decided upon its variant Dalida. In Homage to the continent of her birth, it was of African-Swahili and Arabic origin, from the former, her new moniker translated as ‘gentle,’ and from the latter, ‘to tease.’

Isolated and far away from her family and friends, Dalida found solace in music and took singing lessons. Not only did she have natural talent, she also had a powerful stage presence and was hired to perform her own cabaret act at a the Olympia, a music hall in the 9th arrondissement with her signature tune being Étrangèr au Paradis, a hit from the 1953 musical Kismet. Dalida also appeared in several films including the Egyptian motion picture Sigarah wa kas (1955) and Marc de Gastyne’s Le masque de Toutankhamon (1955), but it was whilst working at the Olympia, that she met Lucien Morisse, a produce at Europe n° 1, the biggest radio station in France at that time, and the record producer Eddie Barclay. Instantly captivated by her, Morisse proposed despite already being married. Morisse later divorced and they would eventually wed on 8th April 1961, although the marriage dissolved in matter of weeks following Dalida’s affair with the French actor Jean Sobieski. 

Recognising Dalida’s star quality, Barclay immediately signed her and under his label, she released her début single, Madonna in 1956. It met with limited success, as did her second single La VioleteraBambino, her third single, also released in 1956, became a huge hit, spending 46 weeks in the top ten of the French charts and selling in excess of 300,000 copies. The song also earned Dalida a gold disc in September 1957, the first of seventy that she would amass throughout her career. More hits followed including Gondolier and Come Prima. For the remainder of the 1950s, Dalida toured all over Europe and became a household name in Egypt and Italy, as well as France. The majority of her songs were in French, but she also sung in her mother tongue Italian, Egyptian Arabic, Greek, German, Hebrew, Dutch, English, Spanish and Japanese.

Above: Dalida – Bambino (1956)

Changing musical tastes during the 1960s appeared to have little adverse affect upon Dalida’s popularity, which steadily grew throughout the decade, culminating in the French President Charles de Gaulle bestowing the Médaille de la Présidence de la République on her in December 1968. Yet it was a period of personal loss and tragedy for the charismatic chanteuse. In 1966, after meeting the Italian singer and songwriter Luigi Tenco in Rome, the two embarked upon a passionate relationship, announcing their engagement within months. They also hoped to collaborate musically and Tenco wrote Ciao Amore Ciao for them as their entry for the Festival della canzone Italiana di Sanremo in January 1967. 

Above: Dalida – Ciao Amore Ciao

Feeling that his performance had been inadequate, the news that song had only scored 38 votes out of a potential 900 had a devastating impact upon Tenco, who suffered from sever bouts of depression stemming back to his troubled childhood. He was discovered by Dalida that evening, having taken his own life by shooting himself in the head. A note had been left explaining that his actions were a consequence of the public rejection of Ciao Amore Ciao. However, an element of mystery surrounded the event, with some of those close to him claiming that Tenco had been murdered due to his involvement with the upper echelons of the Italian Government and military. An exhumation and re-examination of his body in 2006 conclusively proved that he had in fact committed suicide.

A month later, Dalida attempted to join her deceased lover by taking an overdose at the Prince of Wales Hotel in Paris. She was found just in time, but spent a week in coma and the next eight months recovering. In December 1967, Dalida became pregnant as the result of a brief fling with an 18-year-old student. Believing herself unable to care for a child at that time, she terminated the pregnancy, a decision which left her unable to have children and which she would view with intense regret.

Indeed, regret and the remembrance of times past would become a common theme in Dalida’s songs, and her 1968 album Le Temps des Fleurs took on a darker tone than her earlier outpourings, with the title track based on Dorogoi Dlinnoyu, a melancholy Russian about lost love and the fleetingness of youth. Three years after Tenco’s death, her first husband Lucien Morisse killed himself in the same way, leaving Dalida heartbroken. At the same time, her career was going from strength to strength, and in 1973 she recorded a French version of the Italian song Paroles Paroles with Alain Delon, which was a number one France and Japan. Gigi L’amoroso, released in 1974, topped the chart in nine countries.

Above: Dalida – Gigi L’amoroso (1974)

In 1972, Dalida had found love again with the mysterious Richard Chanfray, who claimed to be the legendary, immortal Count de Saint-Germain, and even went on French television, asserting that he had evidence to confirm his story. Dalida duetted with Chanfray for the 1975 single Et de l’amour, de l’amour, but by 1981, the relationship was over. A year later, Dalida was threatened by public scandal over press reports about her closeness to the French President François Mitterrand, and on 21st July 1983 Chanfray died after inhaling carbon monoxide from his Renault at his home in Saint-Tropez. His death, as well as the negative media coverage plunged Dalida into a pit of despair, which she struggled to overcome.

Above: Dalida and Richard Chanfray – Et de l’amour, de l’amour (1975)

Though Dalida remained as sought after as ever, she found herself pushed into making trendy disco hits, which she felt lacked profundity and sophistication. At the age of 52, she underwent two heart operations, and began to experience problems with her vision –  a consequence of refusing to wear glasses as a young girl. Dalida was forced into temporary retirement but in 1986, she returned with a new album Le visage de l’amour and received rave reviews for her acting in Youssef Chahine’s drama, Le Sixième Jour. Set in Cairo in 1947, the film brought back memories of her own childhood, and her role as a grandmother desperately trying to protect her grandson from the cholera epidemic sweeping the city, was a painful a reminder that it was a part she would never play in real life. 

Above: Dalida in Le Sixième Jour (1986)

Her glittering success and the adoration of thousands of fans all over the world could not prevent Dalida from sinking into an inescapable abyss. On 3rd May 1987, she was found dead from an overdose of barbiturates at 11 Rue d’Orchampt, her house in Paris. She had left a note simply saying, ‘La vie m’est insupportable…Pardonnez-moi.’

Dalida remains an iconic figure in much of Europe, as well as in her native Egypt. She was was buried at the Cimetière de Montmartre and even now, nearly thirty years after her death, her devoted fans ensure her that her grave is permanently covered with her favourite white flowers. In 1997, a bust of Dalida was unveiled in a part of the Butte Montmartre, which was renamed Place Dalida. A biopic, Dalida, was made in 2005, starring Italian actress Sabrina Ferilli as Dalida and the French actor Christopher Lambert as Chanfray. Looking back on her own film career, Dalida admitted, ‘deep within me I didn’t really wish to be in movies, for it is my belief that if I really wanted to, I’d be in the movies. I firmly believe that everybody is able to realise their wishes, provided that they really want to.’

Above: Dalida – Les Temps des Fleurs (1968)

Selected Sources:

Pop Culture Arab World!: Media, Arts, and Lifestyle – Andrew Hammond (2005)

Post-Colonial Cultures in France – Alec Hargreaves and Mark McKinney (2013)