22 March 1923 – 22 September 2007
I visited Père Lachaise in March of 2008 which was just a few months after M. Marceau had passed away. His headstone was not yet ready, but his grave was covered in flowers and other mementos left by mourners. (In regards to the note in the photo with the drawing of Marceau’s famed Bip the Clown on it, I really wish I knew who London was that the family was supposed to keep informed of the memorial service.)
Marceau was the most famous mime in the world, and that’s really all I knew about him literally until I looked up his Wikipedia entry to write up this little bio.
Born Marcel Mangel in Strasbourg to a Jewish family, at 16 years old, he was forced into hiding with his family when the Nazis invaded France. They fled to Limoges where he joined the French Jewish Resistance (Organisation Juive de Combat – OJC aka Armée Juive), a group composed of nine clandestine Jewish networks which rescued thousands of children and adults during the Holocaust in France. Tragically, his father was captured by the Gestapo and died in Auschwitz.
Marcel lived in hiding for the duration (though it seems as if the family’s hiding involved living under assumed identities). He attended school in the Paris suburbs while pretending to work for the woman conducting lessons as cover. He and his older brother (who also had joined the OJC) adopted the last name Marceau during the German occupation, a name they chose in reference to a general of the French Revolution.
After the liberation of Paris, they joined the French army where Marcel’s language skills (he spoke fluent English, French, and German) earned him a post as liaison officer with Patton’s Third Army.
I think it may be difficult for people who missed the era of television before cable to understand just how famous Marceau was on an international scale in his day. Even in the US, everyone knew who Marcel Marceau was. The programming we had access to back then was limited and ubiquitous, and he appeared on television frequently and was a widely admired artist and performer.
Obviously, I’m barely scratching the surface here of his life and artistic and humanitarian achievements. As usual, Wikipedia is a good place to start to learn more.
RIP M. Marceau
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