Wining and Dining Chez Gigi
ON THE EVE OF A FINAL REHEARSAL following two years of grueling work, Leslie Caron is standing in a vaguely chaotic scene that looks for all the world like a film set. A girlish, somewhat disheveled-looking figure in T-shirt and jeans, Caron, 62, is checking on the construction crew hurrying to finish the dining room at her Auberge La Lu-carne aux Chouettes in the Burgundian village of Villeneuve-sur-Yonne. Surrounded by the pleasant cacophony of electricians, masons and plumbers, the actress surveys the rustic-chic restaurant, with its wooden beams, terracotta tiles and zinc-topped bar, then leads a visitor outside to view the piece de resistance: a handsome stone wall that surrounds the terrace. Confessing that the rocks were taken from her own property nearby, she says proudly, "I destroyed my pigsty."
No sacrifice, it seems, is too great for Caron—an exuberantly driven woman who has thrown herself into a second career as a reslaurateurcum-hotelkeeper in a medieval town of 5,000. Although she claims she "really, really, really didn't want to be the owner of a restaurant," she happily stepped into the role when her four-room hotel opened to the public this summer. On this day, just prior to the opening, friends, townspeople and work-crew members are due to play-act as dinner guests. Caron is thrilled. "I love to learn," she says, "and this is a terrific adventure."
A gifted decorator, Caron had put her exquisite stamp on homes in London, Bel Air and Paris before embarking on her latest adventure. In 1981 she bought a country house near Villeneuve-sur-Yonne. "I would drive into town to buy milk, and as I'd go over the bridge, I'd always notice these little houses that were totally rundown," she remembers. "I'd say, 'They're so charming, why doesn't somebody do something?'"
Six years later one of the houses went up for sale, and Caron made her bid. With the help of son Christopher Hall (a British television producer) and a banker friend, she eventually rescued the cluster of derelict 17th-century buildings. When they began the $400,000 renovation job in October 1991, it was "total mental, physical and emotional involvement for Leslie," says friend Judy Fayard, a Paris-based writer. "She lived out there in the freeze-ass cold all winter long, going to the site at 7 a.m. and driving the truck herself to get the tiles."
As committed as she is to her auberge, Caron hasn't let it preempt her acting career. In 1991 she starred in a Berlin production of Grand Hotel, and last year she took on the role of the heroine's jaded mother in Louis Malle's erotic drama, Damage. She was still working as construction boss when she was called to the Damage set in London. "I can't tell you what it was like trying to clean my nails and look like a woman of the world," she says.
Fortunately, Caron was able to bring her dancer's grace—and discipline—to the task. Raised in a Paris suburb by Jean-Claude Caron, a pharmacist, and Margaret Petit, a dancer, she took her place at the bane at 9. Petit, who had given up her career when she married, encouraged her daughter to join the Ballet des Champs-Elysées at 16. "For my mother, there was nothing better than a career," says Leslie.
A ballet sensation at 17, Caron was chosen by Gene Kelly as his co-star in An American in Paris, which won six Oscars in 1951. Called by one critic "the little girl for whom every man thanked heaven," she signed with MGM at 18 and charmed filmgoers in Lili and, of course, 1958's Gigi, in which she made her mark as a breath-of-fresh-airingenue opposite Maurice Chevalier.
Behind the scenes, though, life was more complex. Although first husband George Hormel II (an American meatpacking heir, to whom she was wed for four years) was happy to see Leslie onscreen, British theater producer Peter Hall, whom she married in 1956, wanted her at home. After moving with him to London and giving birth to Christopher, now 36, and Jennifer, 35, she became frustrated with her "wifey" existence and insisted on continuing her career. That rebellion, along with a romance with Warren Beatty, prompted her 1964 divorce.
Since her seven-year marriage to producer Michael Laughlin ended in 1976, Caron hasn't been tempted to marry again. There are friends aplenty in Paris, and she dotes on Christopher (father of Freddie, 3, and Benjamin, 10 months) and Jennifer, a divorced writer who lives in London with daughter Stephanie, 8. Aside from acting and hauling cement, Leslie has devoted herself to writing in recent years: In 1982, Doubleday published a volume of her short stories titled Vengeance, and she has finished three film scripts. "I've had no time for a man," she says. "I'd like to have someone, but I don't think men like women who do too much."
In any case, Caron seems to have little inclination to second-guess herself. "When you get to your 50s, your movie-star career is over, let's face it," she says, handing a drill to a workman hanging chandeliers that she designed for the dining room. "You have to find an [outlet] for all that creative power. I still think of myself as a beginner about to break through. Everything," she says happily, "is a premiere."
CATHY NOLAN in Paris
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