A former Washington Post staff writer, Peter Mikelbank has served as PEOPLE Magazine’s Special Correspondent in Paris since 1987. Here he recounts his time in Paris with the late Jerry Lewis, who died Sunday at the age of 91.
Walking with Jerry Lewis in Paris gave a glimpse of what it was to stroll the gardens at Versailles with kings. To be at Le Bourget when Lindbergh landed. To sit on a tack.
He was a king, a crowned head, whose subjects swarmed him with adulation. He didn’t speak their language (beyond “sandwich jambon”). Unable to return their adoration with words, he made funny faces. Which only incited more frenzied affection.
He was a comic force of nature in an otherwise pretty rational country. There has never been, maybe never will be, a love story quite like that of Jerry Lewis and France.
Initially praised as the successor to Chaplin, Laurel and Keaton, he was a Technicolor clown awarded the rank of the Legion d’Honneur. Taken seriously as a director, comic and actor by French audiences, filmmakers and critics, he responded with pratfalls, slapstick, endless schtick.
Lewis in France.
I met Jerry in December 1987, when after his revival in Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy he came to France to launch the first Muscular Dystrophy Telethon here. It could only be described a bewildering cultural clash. France was unprepared for the spectacle which Americans had long grown conditioned to seeing: the professional idiot turning children’s crusader each Labor Day.
Jerry was as unprepared as the French, and after stopping to be gawked at in a café for lunch, arrived late at the studio. He had a little help from his friends. Paul McCartney. The Bee Gees. Marcel Marceau, Paul Anka, every French singer since Piaf, mostly recruited by his impossible-to-fluster translator and friend Yanou Collart. Stepping before the cameras and tote board in front of a nation expecting to see familiar comedy, he revealed himself differently though, pleading “look into your hearts … and you will see behind the silly clown is a man who cares for children as you care … ”
At the end of a cyclonic 28-hour weekend, he’d raised $33 million, money largely dedicated to jumpstarting a French research project to create a map of human genetics. His clowning brought continuing medical advances and he was deservedly proud of that.
There were things I learned about Jerry Lewis on that weekend and on several others. For example, he wore those blasted white socks off camera — and only wore each pair one time.
Mostly, I found he could be unforgiving, wildly irascible, blasphemously funny, provoking, amazingly generous, loyal to a fault, mean-tempered, unrelentingly professional and surprisingly confessional. He thought himself a ‘pussycat.’ He was a whirlwind who could be a world-class pain in the ass — and the nine-year kid from hell inside him knew it damn well.
Lewis with French mime Marcel Marceau.
He was also never boring.
He answered to “JL” among intimates. “Chaiah” (it means “animal” in Yiddish) to a few. It was said affectionately and came from his childhood.
He knew more about cameras than anyone I’ve ever met. And he cared deeply about his “kids.” All of us.
He also owned more Louis Vuitton pieces than well anyone since well… Louis Vuitton started making the stuff. I know because at Vuitton’s most elegant Parisian showroom, I watched (and participated) in a “Jerry” moment. He had been collecting Vuitton trunks and suitcases since the ’50s. At the time, he had over 70 pieces housed in a Las Vegas warehouse.
For an hour, he field-tested incredibly expensive pieces, bouncing them around inside the Paris showroom and outside in the shadow of the Arc de Triomphe, treating these luxury items with all the deference due discounted K-Mart grills during a Blue Light Special. I got to gorilla a few pieces — and in that moment, I realized Jerry made movies and a lot of what was in them was the sheer idiocy, the freedom from consequences, we all secretly wished was part of our lives.
He bought 10 new pieces that day — without any idea or concern of cost. “You make me proud to be French,” a salesgirl whispered as he left. In the car, he passed over the bill, asked how much that was in dollars, and when I tallied it around $18,000, he asked me not to tell his wife —who was in the car seated next to him.
This morning France’s largest daily announcing his death, called him, “a magnificent idiot.” You know he would have been pleased with that.