February 28, 2000 12:00 PM

How to explain the peculiar charms of Roger Vadim, the French director who seduced such world-renowned beauties as Brigitte Bardot, Jane Fonda and Catherine Deneuve—and helped to make them stars? Ann Biderman, a screenwriter who was his girlfriend in 1984, argued back then that Vadim was more soothing than sizzling. “People expect him to be a sex maniac with horns,” she told PEOPLE, “but he is truly the most relaxed person I’ve ever known.” With typical sangfroid, Vadim once wrote about snoozing in the same bed with Bardot and Ursula Andress. But, defends director Alexander Whitelaw, “he didn’t say it boastfully.”

Few men could boast such conquests as Vadim, who died of cancer on Feb. 11 at age 72 in a Paris hospital with his fifth wife, actress Marie-Christine Barrault, 55, at his bedside. Fonda, Deneuve and his four children (Nathalie, 42, with Danish actress Annette Stroyberg; Christian, 36, with Deneuve; Vanessa, 31, with Fonda; and son Vania, about 25, with steel heiress Catherine Schneider) had visited before the end. “I was much more upset and moved than I thought I would be,” Fonda, 62, who was married to Vadim from 1965 to 1973, said two days later. Bardot, 65, his wife from 1952 to 1957, called Vadim “seduction itself” and said she still loved him “completely,” although she has married three times since. “They were only husbands,” she told France’s Nice-Matin.

Born in Paris in 1928, Vadim (his middle name), the son of Russian-born French diplomat Igor Plemiannikov and his wife, Marie-Antoinette, grew up fast: he was 9 and his sister Helene, now a film editor, was 8 when their father died of a heart attack. “I aged more in that instant than I have ever aged since,” he wrote in an autobiography. As a teenager living near the Alps, Vadim helped the French Resistance by guiding refugees on skis over the mountains to Switzerland. “When Paris was liberated, I was hungry for everything—experience, sex, art, friendship, freedom and craziness,” Vadim told PEOPLE in 1984.

Working as an assistant to director Marc Allégret in Paris, Vadim in 1949 spotted 14-year-old brunette Brigitte Bardot modeling in Elle magazine and arranged a screen test. They became lovers when she was 15 and he 21, but her parents attempted to end the relationship until Bardot tried to kill herself. When she turned 18, Vadim married her and began reporting for Paris Match, which assigned him to the 1953 Cannes Film Festival. There he paraded the little-known Bardot, whom he had talked into going blonde, for the paparazzi. Leaving journalism to return to film, he whipped up a scandal when he made Bardot the lead in his first film, And God Created Woman (1956). It showed no frontal nudity but was banned by the Catholic Church because of the heroine’s loose morals. “The film was awful!” admits biographer Jeffrey Robinson. “But he had a vision. There was always the appreciation of the beautiful women—and the eroticism.” When Bardot dumped Vadim for her costar, Jean-Louis Trintignant, the director shrugged it off. “You don’t have the right to be happy in love if you’re jealous,” he once said.

Vadim married 20ish actress Stroyberg, lived with (but didn’t marry) 17-year-old Catherine Deneuve and wed Fonda, whom he started seeing when she was 24; he put all three in sexy movies (most notably Fonda’s campy 1968 sci-fi flick Barbarella). After his divorce from Fonda, Vadim married Schneider in 1975 before wedding Barrault, who was a grown-up 43 when they fell in love in 1987. “It took him 60 years to get to that point,” Robinson says. “He told me, ‘I saved the best for last.’ ” Daniel Toscan du Plantier—Barrault’s ex-husband but also a friend of Vadim’s—calls him “a happy man. He was someone in whom there was so much satisfaction to the end of his life. The films merely reflected his happiness.”

Kyle Smith

Cathy Nolan and Peter Mikelbank in Paris

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