Born in Béthune, Pas-de-Calais (some sources say Marseille), France, she was the daughter of Henri Louis Firmin Champmoynat, a French Jewish engineer, airplane pilot in World War II, who died in a concentration camp, and Erma Maria Domenica Giorcelli, an Italian housewife. Before settling and growing up in Marseille, Simon lived in Madagascar, Budapest, Turin and Berlin. She went to Paris in 1931 and worked briefly as a singer, model and fashion designer. She also at one point wanted to become a sculptor. Simon worked chiefly for the Théâtre des Bouffes Parisiens, and then managed to get more serious work with Sacha Guitry in Ô mon bel inconnu. After being spotted in a restaurant in June 1931, Simon was offered a film contract by director Victor Tourjansky, which ended her plans to become a fashion designer. She made her screen debut in Le chanteur inconnu (The Unknown Singer, 1931), and quickly established herself as one of the country’s most successful film actresses. Simon later told a reporter that she had no acting experience when making her first screen test for The Unknown Singer. In 1932, she was given more important roles and she rose to fame after starring in Marc Allégret’s Lac aux dames (Ladies Lake, 1934), which was in her own opinion her first serious role since The Unknown Singer. In later interviews, Simon expressed her gratitude towards Allégret, feeling that he was responsible for her glory. After seeing her in Ladies Lake, Darryl F. Zanuck brought her to Hollywood in August 1935 with a widespread publicity campaign. Before accepting an American contract, Simon completed two more films for Allégret, Les yeux noirs (Black Eyes, 1935) and Les beaux jours (1935). It was usual for foreign actresses to receive months of preparation before working, but Simon was given only a few weeks of English lessons before she was told to report on set. Meanwhile, the studio had trouble finding her a suitable role. She was scheduled to make her American film debut in A Message to Garcia (1936), playing a Spanish girl, but was replaced by Rita Hayworth. In mid-1935, she was cast in the female lead in Under Two Flags (1936), but was discharged during production.
Although it was reported that she withdrew due to illness, it was later revealed that Zanuck fired her after twelve days of shooting because of her temperamental behavior, which displeased the film’s director Frank Lloyd. Simon herself claimed in a 1936 interview that she fell ill after weeks of tests and rehearsing for the film. She admitted, though, that in the early stage of production she was temperamental, insisting that she was inspired to behave that way after a conversation with Marlene Dietrich, who told her that “a star is only as important as she makes herself out to be.” She dismissed any further claims of her being rude or difficult to work with, explaining to the press that she was initially not used to the American lifestyle, which was in her view more extroverted than the French way of living. Her poor health caused her to be hospitalized, during which she became convinced to give up her American contract. Shortly after she had decided to return to France, the studio assigned her to a third billing role in Girls’ Dormitory (1936). Simon was attracted to the story and saw “great possibilities” in her character. Reportedly, she again showed a temperament, which led to difficulties with Ruth Chatterton, the film’s star, who felt that Simon was receiving more attention. Simon confessed that she was nervous during production, because studio executives were closely watching her every step. Although thought to be one of the highlights of the year, Girls’ Dormitory was soon forgotten by the public, making Simon’s American film debut less than impressive. Nonetheless, Simon was hailed a sensation and critics applauded her performance. Furthermore, magazines reported that it brought the actress overnight fame. Shortly after the film’s release she was cast in White Hunter, a B movie that would reunite her with producer Irving Cummings. During filming, she was again stricken by flu, and she ultimately had to be replaced by actress June Lang.
Instead, the studio rushed her in the romantic comedy Ladies in Love (1936), which was filmed in mid-1936. She shared the female lead with Janet Gaynor, Loretta Young and Constance Bennett, some of whom objected to the large number of scenes that Simon was getting. It was a heavyweight lineup in which Simon’s role left her little chance to compete effectively. Trying to avoid quarrels, she hired an assistant to prevent her from making headlines with her behavior. Despite a big build-up, which included a weekly salary even though her first American film was released more than a year after her arrival in the country, Simon’s films for 20th Century Fox were only moderately successful. Among others, she was cast in the Janet Gaynor role in the 1937 remake of the silent classic Seventh Heaven (1927), which co-starred James Stewart and flopped. Afterwards, she was cast in Danger – Love at Work (1937), but due to her heavy French accent she had to be replaced by Ann Sothern. Failing in finding her appropriate roles, the studio allowed her to go on an eight-week vacation to France, and following her return in June 1937, she was assigned to Suez (1938), but the project was shelved and she was eventually replaced. In the late 1930s, Simon returned to France, dissatisfied with the development of her American film career and the backfiring of its related publicity. There, she appeared in the Jean Renoir film La Bête Humaine (The Human Beast) in 1938. With the outbreak of World War II, she returned to Hollywood and worked for RKO Radio Pictures where she achieved her greatest successes in English language cinema with The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941), Cat People (1942) and The Curse of the Cat People (1944); the latter two formed part of the horror film series produced by Val Lewton. These films did not lead to greater success and she languished in mediocre films until the end of the war. She returned to France to act, and appeared in La Ronde (Roundabout, 1950). Her film roles were few after this and she made her final film appearance in 1973.
Simon never married. It was alleged by her secretary that she gave a gold key to her boudoir to any man she was interested in, including George Gershwin. However, as film historian Greg Mank reports in his audio commentary for the DVD of Cat People the secretary was then on trial for extorting money from her employer, and her word on this matter cannot be taken at face value (the secretary was later convicted, and the terms of her probation required that she never speak of the “gold key” scandal again). In the 1950s, Simon was romantically involved with the French banker and racehorse owner/breeder Alec Weisweiller whose wife Francine was one of Jean Cocteau’s patrons. She was at one time in a relationship with World War II double agent Duško Popov, codenamed “Tricycle”. Simon died in Paris, France, on 22 February 2005, aged 94, from natural causes. The BBC mistakenly reported her age as 93 by using the wrong year of birth (1911). A few days later, French Minister of Culture Renaud Donnedieu de Vabres issued a statement in which he extolled Simon’s “charm, her irresistible smile … With Simone Simon’s passing, we have lost one of the most seductive and most brilliant stars of the French cinema of the first half of the 20th century.” In 2011, British actor and writer Stephen Mosley paid tribute to her in his acclaimed book of strange tales The Boy Who Loved Simone Simon.
- April, 23, 1910
- Béthune, Marseille
- February, 22, 2005
- Paris, France
Cause of Death
- natural causes
- Cimetière du Château-Gombert
- Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur, France