By Marjorie Rosen
Updated November 25, 1991 12:00 PM

FOR MORE THAN FOUR DECIDES, HE WAS the embodiment of Gallic charm and sex appeal—world-weary yet insouciant, earthy yet elegant. Even near death, Yves Montand—music-hall performer, matinee idol, political activist and onetime lover of Marilyn Monroe—showed style. Late on Nov. 8, while wrapping his latest film in the small French town of Senlis, the actor, 70, suffered a heart attack. On the way to a hospital he reassured the ambulance crew, “I’ve rarely had transport this comfortable.” Then he told them, “I have lived well enough to have no regrets.”

The following day, with companion Carole Amiel, 31, at his bedside, Montand’s heart at last gave out. He was buried on Nov. 13 beside his first wife, actress Simone Signoret, at Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris. Among the thousands of fans who said farewell were Alain Delon, Gérard Depardieu and Catherine Deneuve. All France was plunged into mourning. “Le Grand,” as he was known, had become an icon as identifiable as the Eiffel Tower.

Montand’s politics—he was once an ardent communist who later disavowed the party with equal passion—informed all his most memorable performances. Long after he won movie stardom as a punk with a truckload of nitroglycerin in Henri-Georges Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear (1953), he went Hollywood with Barbra Streisand in On a Clear Day You Can See Forever (1970) and recently starred in Jean de Florette and its sequel, Manon of the Spring (1986). But his most profound contributions were in political thrillers of the ’60s and ’70s. From La Guerre Est Finie to Z and The Confession, Montand, with his craggy, ravaged face, would convey inordinate intelligence and humanity. On hearing of his death, French Culture Minister Jack Lang declared, “He was a fabulous ambassador of what is best about France.”

Ironically, Montand was a native Italian, born Ivo Livi, in Tuscany, to broommaker Giovanni Livi and his wife, Giuseppina. His parents were communists who fled Italian fascism in 1923 to settle in Marseilles. Ivo quit school at 11 to help the family, working in a factory and as a hairdresser in his sister Lydia’s salon before starting a music-hall career at 17.

In Paris, Montand’s future was shaped by legendary chanteuse Edith Piaf, who hired him in 1944 as her leading man on stage and off. “Piaf taught me everything,” he liked to say. “She was my first true love.” By the time she threw him out in 1946, lovelorn Yves was on the road to stardom.

Three years later, he met Signoret, who took him under her leftist wing. Although wed to director Yves Allégret, she began a passionate affair with Montand, marrying him in 1951. The relationship withstood Montand’s dalliance with Marilyn Monroe in 1960 and another alleged romance in 1962 with his My Geisha costar Shirley MacLaine. “Next to Brando, Yves is the most attractive man I’ve met,” said Marilyn at the time. Signoret shrugged. “What man,” she asked, “could resist if he took Marilyn in disarms?”

Yet behind closed doors, things weren’t always so calm. According to daughter Catherine Allégret (whom Montand officially adopted after Signoret died), “They played Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf 24 hours a day.”

Shortly after Signoret’s 1985 death from cancer, Montand began appearing in public with Amiel, his secretary since 1982. When she became pregnant, she said, “A baby was the only thing I could give him which he’d never had.” Their son, Valentin, was born on the last day of 1988. “I’m mad with joy,” admitted Montand.

It was for Valentin that Montand pushed himself. Only days before his death, he finalized plans for a series of concerts in which he could “show [my son] my talent. I can only offer myself for the time that’s left.” Sadly, there was even less than he thought.