Petula Clark and Her Agent Husband, Claude Wolff, Fly Right as An Anglo-French Concorde
When Claude Wolff laid eyes on Petula Clark 18 years ago, it was a case of hauteur at first sight. “She looked like a pink puppet, a bonbon anglais,” Wolff recalls thinking. “How can she have such bad taste?” If that seems an ungallant thing for a Frenchman to say about the woman he learned to love, Petula agrees cheerfully. “My adolescence came late,” she says.
A onetime child star whom adoring British audiences would not release from her past as a singing war waif, Petula, at 27, had let herself be talked into a Paris concert. She wore a sequined, strapless dress of pink tulle, and her hair was dyed red. Wolff, then 29, a dapper Parisian publicist who was in the audience, was appalled at what he saw. What he heard was a different matter. Next day, when his boss at Vogue Records asked him to promote Petula, he jumped at the chance.
He became the architect of her career, manager as well as fashion arbiter. (He still selects every costume she wears onstage.) The notable stability of their 16-year marriage is a joint creation too. British songwriter Tony Hatch, who gave Pet her greatest hit, Downtown, says their secret is “love. That and Claude’s having totally dedicated all these years to looking after Pet professionally as well as romantically.”
From the beginning the Wolffs were determined not to have “a typical showbiz marriage with constant separations,” says Pet. She knew that kind of life from her unhappy childhood in England, when she was dragooned onto the variety circuit by her dad, a frustrated actor turned male nurse. Petula became a celebrity at 9 singing Mighty Lak’ a Rose on a BBC armed forces radio program. She became a network regular and by 1945 had made 500 appearances. After the war she appeared in a number of low-budget Rank films, working so hard she was heading for a breakdown at 17. She pulled through with self-analysis (“I had no friends my own age and didn’t feel I could talk to anyone”) and began cutting records. But she never really soared until her mid-20s after she had to go through the wrench of firing Dad. “At dinner,” she says, “I wasn’t sure whether I was sitting with my father or my manager.”
Claude’s youth, too, had been disordered. The son of a Jewish architect, he suffered through the occupation of wartime Paris. “I still don’t feel safe if the fridge is empty,” he says. “I always think we should have cans of food just in case.”
When the Germans left, Claude found himself bored with his studies in industrial design. He skipped class to hang around jazz clubs, and at 18 he opened one of his own on the Left Bank. Soon he was spending most of his time on the road, managing the club’s orchestra and American jazz soprano saxophonist Sidney Bechet. By 27, tired of the vagabond life, he took the Vogue Records job that led him to Petula.
At first their flack-star relationship was all business, and even that was difficult. They did not speak each other’s language. “We just grunted,” Pet says. “He seemed to be very aloof. The best I got was a pat on the head when I did a good job.” (She learned the French lyrics for her records phonetically and sang them with a pronounced English accent that charmed Frenchmen. For a couple of years her records outsold Piaf’s.)
After a year Pet was about to return to England when, she says, “Claude drove up with the brakes squealing and there was a fadeout.” She explains her attraction: “I admired the way he worked—fast, diplomatic, never wasting time yet always charming. I’d always had relationships with weaker men, ones I could handle. I couldn’t push Claude around. I liked that very much.” (Claude says admiringly of her: “Petula copes with the big things and seldom loses her temper. It’s the small things that make her explode and send shoes across the room.”)
When a cross-Channel commuting romance didn’t work, Pet moved to Paris. Claude quit his other projects to become her manager but neither was keen on rushing into marriage. “I knew Claude wanted children,” Pet explains, “but I wasn’t sure I could have them. I decided that the day I knew I was pregnant I’d say yes to Claude.” They were married in 1961, and Barbara, now 15, was born seven months later, followed by Catherine, 14. Little brother Patrick came along four years ago.
Despite Petula’s roles in Finian’s Rainbow and Goodbye Mr. Chips and her smashing success on records—Downtown, I Know a Place, Don’t Sleep in the Subway and a string of other hits—she and Claude have largely passed up the American star scene. That would have meant moving here permanently, and the Wolffs prefer Europe.
Since 1967 they have lived in Geneva in a four-bedroom penthouse that provides a spectacular view—and freedom from French taxes. Petula’s travel is arranged around the children’s school holiday schedules. This year it includes a German TV Easter special, some record sessions in England, and a single for a French label. (One she cut last year, Don’t Cry for Me Argentina, from the rock opera Evita, is a current hit in France.) This month she is also appearing at the Sahara in Las Vegas. “I’ve been a star long enough not to be overwhelmed by it,” Pet, now 44, says. Claude, 46, adds: “Some stars give 95 percent to their careers. Pet gives half to her family, which means she could maybe be a bigger star but at our expense.”
One snag is the danger that Wolff might seem a hanger-on. “There’s always some fool who’ll call him ‘Mr. Clark,’ ” Petula says. But Claude has adjusted. “People may say I’m stupid,” he acknowledges, “but it’s just a matter of giving up a little vanity.” Adds his wife: “I just happen to be in the limelight and Claude doesn’t. I couldn’t do my job unless he was doing his. He makes life comfortable for me.”