A true Marseillais, embodiment of the most popular myths about these distinct Frenchmen, Monsieur Fernand Contandin, known worldwide as Fernandel, is one of those great comedians without whom we can hardly imagine the history of French cinema today.
His face didn’t need additional make-up to change instantly and provoke laughter or tears. You wouldn’t be able to confuse it with anyone else, especially thanks to the famous “horse”.
His films are sure to evoke the most positive emotions. Good old “homely” atmosphere, funny and slightly naive characters, getting into entertaining adventures that you’re eager to follow, as if they were your old acquaintances, hilarious and grotesque situations that eventually settle down to everyone’s joy….
Personally I get the impression that this is exactly the way he was: sincere, cheerful, full of sparkling humour and very attached to his family and friends. After all, even his stage name – Fernandel, that is, actually, Fernand d’elle, her Fernand – is said to have been invented by his mother-in-law, mother of Henriette Manse, Fernandel’s faithful life partner, whom he met at the age of 8, and married at the age of 22.
How could I have known that one day I’d have the opportunity to visit the real house of this great actor? However, life is full of pleasant surprises!
I’m anxious to share with you the facts I would never have known, if not for my husband’s acquaintance with the current owner of the house.
Known as Les Mille Roses (Thousand Roses), this villa is famous far beyond the boundaries of Marseilles as the possession of Monsieur Fernandel. In the mid-1930s, he purchased a small house, La Colombe, in the 12th arrondisement of the city and gradually increased his estate to 5 hectares. Two decades later a new house appears here. Larger, laconic and restrained by Art Deco style, with no detail left without attention.
By the way, there’s another Villa Mille Roses on the outskirts of Marseille, Fernandel’s country house by the Mediterranean.
I dare imagine numerous walks the actor enjoyed in his beautiful park under giant centennial cedars and maritime pines, towards a fragrant garden where the queen of flowers, the rose, became the main ornament. It was for her, his Henriette, that Fernandel planted a thousand bushes of the finest roses, and hired a team of gardeners to care for their fragile beauty.
Alas, by the time the estate was acquired by the current owner, the unique rosary was irretrievably lost….
In the middle of the last century, Villa Mille Roses was a haven of tranquillity for the most renowned French artists. Bourvil and Jean Gabin, among others, came to stay quite often. Besides family holidays and dinner parties, Fernandel liked to organize small home theatre performances, and even build an artificial grotto for this purpose. From one side slender columns, forming a kind of “backdrop”, lined it up and the other side accommodated a bar and a tiny kitchen so that his friends would be doubly pleased.
The ground floor was partly taken by a music studio and a cinema; the actor loved to spend his time there. Let’s recall that in the beginning of his career he became famous as a singer in the cabarets of Marseille, and only later devoted himself to cinema acting. This spacious and cosy chamber is decorated with wooden panels and a very practical system of shelves, which could still function perfectly today….
During our visit we learned about another trait of the character of Fernandel: he was extremely accurate and meticulous in his everyday life. Despite the fact that he lived large and did not spare money to maintain his mansion, he remained modest and alien to arty-crafty decor. The style of the master bathroom, for example, would look quite appropriate in a modern interior magazine.
Accustomed to order and discipline, he equipped all bedrooms and an extensive dressing room with spacious built-in closets, whose wooden facades did not grow much old in the last forty years. Drawers still slide easily and noiselessly, as if ready to keep his shirts again: no more than two per a drawer, not to be wrinkled!
Today, the estate bears little resemblance of the past days and its famous ex-owner. However, the skilful mosaic with his initial is still present on the steps of the porch.
The house is preparing for major repairs that are scheduled for the beginning of next year already: la Mairie de Marseille will finance its transformation into “the best” kindergarten of the city. I’m pretty sure that Fernandel, as a wonderful family man, would be amused by these changes.
Read in Russian: Тысяча роз и бездонные шкафы