A Modern Magdalen: Ève Lavallière
Why did one of the world’s most celebrated actresses turn her back on all the world had to offer?
On Friday, July 12, 1929, the following report appeared in The Times of London:
Our Paris Correspondent telegraphs that the death has occurred at Thuilieres, in the Vosges, of Mlle. Ève Lavallière, formerly an actress of distinction. She had been living in retirement for the last 12 years, having suddenly come to the decision, in 1917, to lead a life of religious seclusion.
And why did one of the world’s most celebrated actresses turn her back on all the world had to offer? What the world did not know was that this comedic actress, wit and raconteur, stage sensation in Paris and elsewhere, mistress and mother, one of the wealthiest and most beautiful women of her day, knew no peace. The woman behind the actor’s mask had been plagued by an unfathomable sadness, prey to depressions, despair and suicidal thoughts.
In 1916, at the height of her fame, to aid the war effort, Ève Lavallière was giving a series of performances in London. After one such performance and as the audience stood and applauded, she left the stage. She headed straight for the banks of the nearby river Thames with the intention of drowning herself in its waters.
And yet, as Ève Lavallière stood watching the lights of the city playing on that dark river’s ever-onward course, she relented, if only just. Sadly, it had not been the first time such thoughts had driven her to the brink of annihilation. Curiously, it would be the last, however. Less than a year later, an event occurred that was to change her life forever.
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Eugenie-Maire Pascaline Feneglio was born at Toulon on Easter Sunday, April 1, 1866. Her father was a bad tempered depressive. Ève, her older brother and their mother lived in a constant, tense, dread. Matters came to a head on Sunday, March 6, 1884.
After days of endless invective against Ève’s mother, a pistol shot sounded. The children then saw their mother lying mortally wounded upon the floor. Ève stared in disbelief, but then turning she saw that that same pistol was now pointing at her. A shot discharged, ricocheting off the wall as its intended target dived for cover. Then another shot rang out. This time it found its target, and her father lay dead. At that, the two children ran from the house. They separated; they were never again to see each other.
Ève’s life then became a series of drab jobs in provincial obscurity. This fueled one burning ambition: to “escape.” By now Ève combined an eye-catching face and an ever-growing vivacity with a will of iron and so escape she did to the Paris stage, along the way, taking the stage name “Ève Lavallière.” Thereafter, as in some fairytale, all her wishes came true, but wishes are not prayers, and the realization of her dreams gradually turned to a living nightmare.
Playing before packed, adoring audiences, with even Crowned Heads bowing, the very world appeared to be at her feet. No one knew, however, how the shadows around the actress were growing darker. As the stage lights dimmed each night, the darkness was inhabited only by demons that relentlessly tormented her.
All that was to end in May 1917. Ève Lavallière, now aged 51 years old, signed a contract to tour the United States. With that came the promise of yet greater fame. Before setting off, she felt the need to rest in the French countryside. She retired to the rustic backwater of Touraine.
The landlord of the house she took happened to be the local curé. A good priest, Father Chesteigner asked why Ève was not to be seen at Sunday Mass. Thereafter, each Sunday she went, if more from human respect than any reverence. Nevertheless, the priest and his new parishioner began to talk. She revealed to him, amongst other things, how she had dabbled in the occult. The shocked priest warned her of the grave error of such dalliances. She was disturbed by his reaction. So much so, that later that night, she perceived it as some form of insight, but one that came with a question: if the devil exists then why not God also?
That night, this question perplexed her, and it raised other questions about the life she had led and the lifestyle she continued to lead.
The next day, looking chastened, she presented herself to the priest and, to his astonishment, proceeded to sit down with only one intention: to be instructed in the Catholic faith.
The weeks that followed found Ève reading the life of the saint she would later identify most closely with: Mary Magdalene. The priest had lent her a volume of that saint’s life, suggesting Ève might want to read it on her knees. She did. Soon after, repentance followed, then Confession.
To this day in that parish church at Chanceaux, there can be seen the following engraved in stone: ‘In this church Ève Lavallière converted and received Communion on 19 June 1917, brought back to God by Fr. Chesteigner.’
Following her conversion, Ève became a penitent soul, taking to prayer and mortification to make reparation for her previous ways. She made attempts to find a spiritual home — a convent or monastery — but these proved fruitless. She wandered from place to place before retiring to Lourdes. There she was to be seen, even in the driving rain, making the Stations of the Cross barefoot.
Retreating into obscurity for good, she found herself increasingly alone. In the end, like her saintly model, she had nowhere left to go but the Cross — her sole refuge from the storms that now began to assail her.
During these years, her adult illegitimate daughter flaunted her immoral lifestyle. It cost Ève many tears — perhaps more than anything else. Remorselessly, the daughter exercised a cruel pleasure in taking from her mother all she could, mostly money, while giving nothing in return but a cold indifference.
By the end, walking her penitential path as fully as she had once walked that of evil, Ève’s already fragile health broke. With illness and infirmity, her body now became her Cross. Eventually, for medical reasons, her eyes had to be sewn closed. Of this operation, without an anesthetic and without complaint, she was to offer this almost unbearable pain in expiation, simply saying that she had sinned with her sight.
At dawn on July 10, 1929, Ève’s long watch at the foot of the Cross ended. She was buried in a simple grave at Thuillières where, upon her tomb, were written the words:
I HAVE LEFT ALL FOR GOD. HE ALONE IS SUFFICIENT FOR ME.
The brief newspaper report of her death was in stark contrast with the columns of newspaper print from decades earlier when she was without equal on the stages of Europe. Yet, within a few short years of her death, books were being published about her life and conversion, and tentatively a very different cult to the one she had known at the height of her fame began to grow around her memory.
Now appearing upon a very different stage, Ève Lavallière had begun to play her final and indeed greatest role.