In 1936 the author Louis-Ferdinand Destouches, whose pen name was Céline, would attend ballet classes in the Pigalle neighbourhood of Paris each week. Not to take part, but to spectate, hoping to find some solace in the grace on display after the commercial failure of his second novel, Death on Credit.

Among the students he observed was Lucette Almansor. The 41-year-old author, who had found fame with his debut novel, Journey to the End of the Night, and the 23-year-old dancer, who seldom read, noticed one another. Soon he was discreetly paying the cost of her lessons, which she could barely afford, and inviting her to the Luxembourg Gardens. There they would spend hours eyeing each other up, often in silence.

They had little in common, she an extravagant optimist, he a miserly misogynist consumed by literary ambition and a pessimistic outlook on life. Still, they were quickly bound to one another. “He needed my youth and gaiety,” she later wrote. “I needed his manly head full of the life he had lived.”

Initially drawn to her taut, feminine form, as he had been to many dancers before, Céline soon found in their relationship something more lasting. He loved her “exceptional gift” for movement, her quiet companionship and her unfailing loyalty. In one of his first letters to her he wrote: “I want to spend the rest of my days with you, I have chosen you to gather my soul when I die.”

“He needed my youth and gaiety,” she later wrote. “I needed his manly head full of the life he had lived.”

Intense, in a word. The message, indeed, was as ominous as it was romantic. During the 58 years that separated his death in 1961 from hers she bore, as his heir, sole guardianship of his legacy, which comprises not only some of the most acclaimed works of French fiction, but also some of the most violently antisemitic pamphlets of the 1930s. It was a heavy burden, all the more so as France’s best-known literary widow.

The home she had shared with Céline in a soigné suburb of Paris, and where she finished her days, leaving no survivors, became a place of pilgrimage for the novelist’s many fans. There she hosted everyone from the authors Allen Ginsberg and Patrick Modiano to the singers Carla Bruni and Charles Aznavour. Yet in 1992, when a socialist cabinet minister suggested listing the villa as a historical monument, the backlash was such that the plan was soon dropped.

Decades of Controversy

Through decades of controversy, she consistently defended Céline’s work as well as his character.

She was just as devoted in his lifetime. In 1944, as the Allied forces approached German-occupied Paris and aware that Céline’s Nazi-inspired pamphlets would open him up to reprisals after the city’s liberation, she accompanied him in his escape. For seven years she lived in exile with her husband, first in the company of Marshal Philippe Pétain and his followers in the medieval German town of Sigmaringen, where the Vichy government had sought refuge, then in Copenhagen, where they lived under aliases until they were discovered and arrested. She was detained for 11 days, he for 18 months, under threat of extradition, until the French government granted him amnesty and the couple returned home.

Destouches with her husband, Céline, in 1952. “I wasn’t looking to be happy with him. All I wanted was to alleviate his sorrow.”

During those trying times the jailed Céline wrote her savage letters accusing her of excessive spending, and dubious newspaper reports hinted that she had known the head of the French Gestapo. Yet she endured every humiliation: “I wasn’t looking to be happy with him. All I wanted was to alleviate his sorrow,” she later wrote.

Lucie Georgette Almansor was born in Paris in 1912, the daughter of Joseph Jules Almansor, an accountant and later an army officer, and his wife, Gabrielle Donas. Her parents, unhappy in marriage, separated in 1940 having stayed together for her sake. Still, she suffered from their fights as well as from her father’s frequent absences and her distant relationship with her mother, whom Lucette had to address using the formal “vous”.

Her sole comforts were a nearby zoo, where she delighted in an elephant that splashed visitors, and her dance classes, to which she dedicated all of her energy from the age of 14.

Emerging from the Bubble

Reviews of her early performances described her dancing as “eurythmic, even poetic” and noted her “great ease” on stage. She spent three years as a ballerina at the Opéra-Comique before touring the United States and Europe. She returned to Paris, and while recovering from a knee injury her prospects seemed uncertain. It was then that she met Céline. His connections having failed to get her reinstated at the Opéra-Comique, she began a career as a dance instructor. They married in 1943.

In France after the war their life was austere. Céline, whose health had deteriorated in prison, required constant attention. Living as a recluse, he insisted that she did too. On July 1, 1961 the ailing author asked that she inform his publisher that he had completed his latest novel. Hours later, he was dead.

The manuscript of Journey to the End of the Night, by Louis-Ferdinand Céline, the novel that put him on the map.

After that, she slowly emerged from the bubble in which he had kept her. She paid the bills for the first time, bought a television, obtained her driving licence, hosted lavish parties and travelled abroad with new friends. “Céline’s death freed Lucette,” one of them said. She continued teaching dance into her eighties. Only later did she lose the taste for life. “One shouldn’t live so long,” she said on her 100th birthday.

The novelist loomed large over her life. But so too did she over his, featuring as she did in three of his novels, as Lili, and able to decide which of his works were published after his death. For decades she prevented his antisemitic writings from being reprinted until, controversially, she changed her mind two years ago, to allow an academic edition of those texts.

As far back as 1961 she had her name inscribed on their shared tombstone, under his, with the dates 1912-19– to be filled in later. She never suspected that they would be apart for so long.

Lucette Destouches, dancer and literary heir, was born on July 20, 1912. She died on November 8, 2019, aged 107