The Statue Is Done: The Jacqueline du Bief Story
Back in the fourth installment of "The Other World Champions" series here on the blog, we oh so briefly explored the story of one of the most enigmatic skaters to capture the world's attention during her era. For a long time I have wanted to write at length about Jacqueline du Bief's important contribution to the skating world... but there have been a couple of roadblocks. There's not a wealth a video footage of her publicly available and much of the source material written about her career isn't in the English language. That said, with a translated copy of her 1956 autobiography in hand, a wealth of English sources and what French sources I could roughly translate, I put my nose to the grindstone and was able to come up with this biographical sketch which I hope will shed some new light on just how big a deal this French star really was.
Born December 4, 1930 in Paris, France, du Bief started skating at the age of four with her older sister Raymonde at the Molitor Rink and became immediately hooked. Both sisters actually studied ballet prior to receiving high level instruction in skating, which was a complete juxtaposition to how most skaters of the era would have approached the sport in their youths. When she started taking lessons with Lucien Lemercier, she was a quick learner and by nine years of age, she was already making quite an impression. One of the first mentions of du Bief wowing crowds was around this time. The August 21, 1939 issue of the French language newspaper "Le Figaro" cites her as a star of Lè bal des Petits Lits Blancs in Cannes, an opulent summer festival where she demonstrated her skating prowess alongside other performers such as soprano Lily Pons, ballet dancer Serge Lifar and le ballet de l'Opéra-Comique.
Photo courtesy Bill Unwin
After winning the French junior title - her first competition - du Bief moved into the senior ranks. In "Thin Ice", she explained that in her first senior competition "the day began with a heavy air raid and I arrived at the rink with a strange feeling of discomfort and fatigue... When my turn came, I presented myself without enthusiasm and I executed a programme in which the greatest difficulties consisted of one 'Lutz', 3 consecutive loop jumps on the same foot, and a long spin of four turns. There were six of us and I got fourth place, but we had not left the dressing-room before the siren went, announcing another aid raid. We remained for two hours in the underground shelters of the building. There, stretched on a bench, and rolled in a blanket, I became feverish and red spots broke out over my face. When we at length got back home, my mother said to me: 'Tomorrow I will buy you a book and some crayons, and you'll have to stay in bed - you've got measles.'"
When Paris fell to the Nazis on June 14, 1940, the trajectory of du Bief's budding career was affected greatly. During the German occupation, power plants were taken over and ice rinks were closed. With no artificial ice to be heard of, du Bief returned to where she started, practicing wherever the nearest lake froze over once she recovered from her illness. After the Liberation Of Paris in August 1944, rinks reopened and du Bief returned, training at Boulogne Billancourt and the Molitor and Rue Nesnil ice rinks with coach Jacqueline Vaudecrane.
By 1947, du Bief had won her first of six consecutive French senior ladies titles. Appearing at the 1948 Winter Olympics in St. Moritz, she made an inauspicious start, finishing sixteenth of twenty five competitors, but by the time she made it to Davos for that year's World Championships, the young skater was already turning heads. Although she gave a disastrous showing in the school figures, her unique free skating style did not go unnoticed by the judges, who included Kenneth Macdonald Beaumont and Melville Rogers.
Photo courtesy Bill Unwin
That contrast between a weakness in school figures and a prodigious talent in free skating was a theme that went on throughout the five foot five skater's career. It didn't help that one of her main rivals was Jeannette Wirz (Altwegg) who was regarded by many as the finest school figure skater of her era and it also didn't help that du Bief's stance on the matter of school figures was that "they're so boring." When she appeared at the 1949 World Championships in front of a hometown crowd, she moved up from sixteenth out of seventeen skaters to ninth overall on the basis of her free skating alone; a kind of meteoric rise in the standings and juxtaposition that was rare back in those days. While Jacqueline was rising in prominence in the amateur ranks, her sister Raymonde was finding success as a professional skater. Raymonde's success motivated Jacqueline to see just how far she could push the envelope artistically as a free skater. She was fiercely determined to win on her own terms.
What made du Bief just so unique at the time? Susan D. Russell noted in a 2012 article in International Figure Skating magazine that "throughout her career, Du Bief experimented with new and innovative ideas and explored all avenues of artistic skating. Her vibrant personality and power of presentation accentuated her many brilliant and original moves, which at times both dazzled and shocked audiences. Du Bief was renowned for her creative choreography. She once devised a program where she portrayed a statue that came to life while another performer pretended to be asleep in a chair on the ice. In another program, she wore a costume with red and white arm bands so that when she spun her arms resembled a barber’s pole." She was also credited by Dick Button with the invention of the illusion spin when she lost balance on entrance to a camel. She wore flame red dresses, insisted on doing her own choreography and by 1950, had decided to play the game and put in the time required to improve her school figures drastically so that she wasn't always having to come from behind. She also took up pairs skating, winning two national titles with partner Tony Font in 1950 and 1951. By 1950, her hard work and innovations were starting to pay off. In Oslo at the European Championships, she won her first international medal (a bronze) behind Ája Vrzáňová and Altwegg. The following year, she was both the European and World Silver Medallist, winning the free skate in both events.
The stage was set for 1952 to be du Bief's year and in her first two international outings - the European Championships in Vienna and the Winter Olympics in Oslo - she was unable to overcome her finishes in the school figures and overtake Altwegg. The fact that she ultimately moved up to win the bronze medal at the 1952 Olympics was actually quite remarkable in the fact that she was skating at that event with a fever of 101.7. Willed on by her strong desire to finally win an international competition, she returned to Paris to skate in front of a home crowd at the World Championships at the Palais Des Sports. The whole event was rather surreal for the nineteen year old skater. In an Ice Network feature on her coach Vaudecrane, du Bief was quoted as saying "I was alone on the ice in that stadium. It was me and the audience and my skating under the stars," She landed the first double Lutz from a woman in international competition and earned a perfect mark of 6.0, taking home the World title. But it wasn't all roses. She fell twice (once quite badly) and her hometown crowd turned on her. Frank Orr's February 13, 2002 article from the Toronto Star noted that "the spectators pelted the judge [who gave her the 6.0] with bottles and anything else that wasn't nailed down" when they learned that she had beaten American Sonya Klopfer (Dunfield). In his book "Dick Button On Skates", Uncle Dick considered the politics behind the audience's outburst: "During the marking, the highly demonstrative audience was shouting its approval or disapproval as it saw fit. The German judge raised his card to mark the performance in free skating. Out of a possible perfect score of six, he gave a six. Despite the fact that this skater had fallen down, he had given her a perfect score. Had he given it to her in contents, the judge could have justified himself by approving her music, the layout of the program and so forth. But to give a perfect mark for a 'performance' in which the skater fell down was just incredible; had the judge merely wished to place her first, he could have done so with almost any other mark by judging the others consistently with the standard he placed on her performance. But the crowd was emotional, the judge was a German voting in Paris at a time when political tempers were flaring, and there was no adequate check on his action at that time. Whether or not there was a direct connection between these factors and that mark can be surmised by the reader as well as the writer, but it is interesting note that the resulting criticism, although directed against that particular judge, also reflected the general dissatisfaction with the system of marking that permitted such an incident."
Her controversial win resulted in nicknames ranging from 'The Pride Of Paris' to 'The French Panther'. In her autobiography, du Bief conceded that Dunfield should have won. That's not how any World Champion would want to have to look back on their winning performance, especially one so regarded for their ahead of their time free skating talent. Sadly, the controversy followed her to her final amateur competition - the French Championships - where she was plagued by consistent speculation as to whether or not she'd already turned professional. Although plans were in the works with John Harris, she hadn't signed anything. She took her final gold medal and hit the road with a sour taste in her mouth. In "Thin Ice", she recalled "my world of that time, a world of competition and classic rules, was to me the detestable and necessary world of the concrete and the real, but my world of tomorrow - the show world - I was quite sure was a world of dreams and imagination, a world of the ideal."
The story of HOW du Bief turned professional is one of the coolest I've ever encountered. The April 5, 1952 edition of Billboard magazine recounted that the "entire production staff of Ice Capades here, is eagerly awaiting the Tuesday arrival of Jacqueline du Bief, Parisian world figure-skating champ, at Idlewild Airport. Seems that [although] the French darling of ice, whom Ice Capades execs are gambling will be the hottest skate sensation since Sonja Henie, has already agreed to turn pro under their banner, she is holding on to her amateur status until a few moments before her overseas plane touches U.S. soil. The sentimental 19-year old is determined to sign her first pro contract at the exact moment her plane flies over the Statue of Liberty, an earlier French gift to America. Ice Capades contract inking will be legally witnessed at that moment by plane captain and co-pilot." She joined the show the next week in Chicago. On her decision to turn professional, du Bief spoke out in the December 17, 1953 issue of the Chicago Tribune: "What could I do after being world champion but stay and be world champion again? So I decided you cannot be an amateur all your life, you have to work some day. I do not like the school figures necessary in amateur competition. I wished always to do dance and interpretive numbers. The judges used to say 'She is too theatrical, not classical enough.' In the show I can do what I want, what I feel, be more free."
Photo courtesy Bill Unwin
Freer she was. Her self-choreography and music choices became even more avant garde. Her eclectic programs ranged from "Johnny Guitar" to a honky-tonk folk ballad bemoaning the fate of Tom Dooley to "When The Saints Go Marching In" to an underwater fantasy. She once remarked that "a fish on ice might sound funny but I represent the movements." After a brief stint with Ice Capades, in 1953 she performed in Paris in the star role of Sonja Henie's troupe while Sonja vacationed in Paris, then co-starred with of Arthur Wirtz' Hollywood Ice Revue in December alongside Barbara Ann Scott. She followed that up with performances in Holiday On Ice and the Scala Eisrevue. The young French diva was in demand.
A bit of a diva du Bief was. She drove herself from place to place in her Simca sports car with a snow white, deaf cat named Totoche with blue eyes she acquired in Brighton at her side everywhere she went. She modelled with clay, had an eye for fashion and spent her time off the ice in theaters and at the ballet, listening to symphonic music and reading books. She also had a notorious sweet tooth and loved to bake. In 1954, she had a wonderful collection of waltzes especially composed for her by Alain Romans (here's the link from the BNF archives to listen!) and she started performing regularly as a star of Tom Arnold's Ice Pantomime's in Great Britain. Her televised appearance as "Aladdin" (in the starring masculine role) was reportedly the catalyst for another future World Champion - John Curry - to want to take up the sport. After watching a performance and interview with du Bief, Curry was said to have announced to his mother "I want to go skating".
Photo courtesy Bill Unwin
As much as she loved travel, du Bief frequently spoke of the loneliness of being on the road in interviews. She said that "when in a show you cannot have any life like everybody. If you have a skating boyfriend it is no fun. Always it is the same thing. You cannot speak of anything but skating. And if you meet a boy outside the show, before he can become a boyfriend you are gone."
After penning her autobiography in 1956, du Bief starred the Arnold productions "Babes In The Wood On Ice" and "Aladdin" at Wembley Pool and then toured with "Liverpool Empire", where she did a Royal Command Appearance. In 1958, she made the decision to stop touring and start freelancing. She starred in the first Lido de Paris show, flew from Paris to Ottawa to skate three numbers in the Minto Follies, gave exhibitions at winter carnivals in Switzerland and Germany and did a two month show in Johannesburg, South Africa. She loved skating in warm climes and noted in a March 11, 1958 Ottawa Citizen interview that it "will be lovely to visit a warm country. Skaters seldom get a chance, although I was in Spain, Majorca and Minorca last year."
In 1959, she accepted a year long engagement in the Ice Cocktail show at the Las Vegas Stardust Hotel and the following year was a regular on the short-lived NBC variety programs "Music On Ice" and "Summer On Ice "alongside Johnny Desmond, Jill Corey, The Skip Jacks, The Dancing Blades and ice comedian Ben Dova. The shows got bad reviews for their poor use of colourization and awful music and du Bief's skating was generally regarded as the glue that held the productions together. That same year, the "Ottawa Citizen" noted in its March 19 edition that her accent "landed her in difficulties the other day in Rochester. Trying to buy a train ticket to Ithica a cantankerous agent mistook 'Eezica' for utica and to pacify him she said 'OK, however you say it - give me one ticket.' She wound up in Utica, 70 miles away and had to take a taxi to catch the beginning of her show."
In 1961, du Bief returned to Great Britain to take on the role of The Wicked Queen to Sue Park's Snow White in "Snow White On Ice" at the Empire Theatre in Glasgow. "The Glasgow Herald", on March 29, 1961, wrote that she "has a grace and charm that belie her sinister role." The following year, she again bucked convention when she took on the male role of Peter Pan in "Peter Pan On Ice" at Wembley Pool. In 1964, she headlined in a six-month tour with "Snow White On Ice" in South Africa. On her time as a professional skater, du Bief once remarked that "when I work well, and the audience is good, I forget I am tired and everything else. I like to leap. I feel I fly through the air and I like that. My best pleasure is to jump so big and so fast as I can when I practice. Sometimes I fall very hard, but I like that." It was shortly after her stint with Tom Arnold in South Africa that du Bief retired from professional skating, returning to live in France.
When touring with Ice Capades right after turning professional, she told reporters that Olympic figure skating competitions were corrupt and the current judging system should be abolished. In addition, in "Winter Sports" in 1966, Howard Bass noted that "Jacqueline du Bief has suggested that school figures, the way they are being emphasized today, can actually hurt a skater's free skating performance and that some of the tedious hours devoted to figures could be spent more advantageously in free skating." Her opinion on school figures may not have been surprising, but her opinion on the role of dance to developing strong free skating very much was. The very skater who took ballet before she took formal skating lessons did not, according to Bass, advocate practical ballet training for skaters either but was supportive of the idea of skaters watching ballets be performed. By the 1992 Olympics, forty years after du Bief's Olympic medal win school figures were no longer part of Olympic competition and as for that judging system she felt she should be abolished? We all know what happened ten years later in Salt Lake City.
Left: An airborne Jacqueline. Right: Dick Button and Jacqueline.
Left to right: Raymonde du Bief, Bill Unwin and Jacqueline du Bief backstage at the opening of Holiday On Ice at Wembley in 2006. Photo courtesy Bill Unwin.
I want to close with perhaps my favourite quote from Jacqueline du Bief, which sums up her thoughts on the creative process: "When it is in your brain you feel it is the best you ever did. Sometimes it is good and sometimes it is bad, but the best moment is when you have it in your brain. I try to do what a sculptor does with a statue - correct it all the time. At the end it is done, like the statue is done." I hope I've been able to, in patching together the pieces of her story like a quilt, do justice to that statue's story.
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