Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Gardel's French family and the ghosts of the Dirty War

Carlos Gardel (1890-1935) and colonel Jean Gardes (1914-2000)
As some of my readers might know, one of my "other hobbies" is genealogy, and I often combine tango travels with visits to dusty archives and overgrown cemeteries and quizzing long-lost relatives. Last week's trip to Canada was no exception. I danced to a whole number of tandas which excited me both as a DJ and as a flesh-and-bones tanguero (Noches correntinas, oh my, it turns out that one can dance to it! Rebeldia of a quality which makes me salivate, in a milonga tanda topped with the classic Mi Vieja Linda! Or how about a dramatic tanda united by the voice of Floreal Ruiz with the orchestras of Basso and Rotundo?)
But I also visited a wonderful and very distant relative whom I only knew from our online conversations before. Incredibly, he immediately dropped a name of ... Carlos Gardel. Like, do I know about this singer, who was a big name in tango in his age?
It turns out that Gardel's French relatives were his in-laws, and they liked to talk about their famous Argentine kin. About the mystery of his birth and the horror of his fiery death. About the shame Gardel's well-off and very conservative relatives back home felt about his sexy songs and rumored mob connections. I listened. And now I know that the well-known account of Elena Irene Gardes in her 1996 book "Carlos Gardel y la raíz de mi genealogía" is only part true, that her Gardes ancestors did remember quite a few things about Carlos Gardel's roots correctly, but many mistakes were introduced into the story as the author was trying to "connect the dots". Let me try to fix it, and then to mention a special connection the Gardel's relatives had to the Argentine Dirty War and the infamous torture-center at ESMA.

The outline of the family lore of the ancestors of Elena Irene Gardes went like this: after the parents of Gardel's mother Berthe divorced,  Berthe moved in with her uncle's family, and had an illicit relationship with her cousin, a few years junior. She gave birth to a boy Charles (future Carlos Gardel) and was forced to flee to South America. (To those who sincerely believe that Gardel was South America's native son, born in Tacuarembó, Uruguay, I have to apologize. There is plenty of room for legends in the story of Carlos Gardel, and I respect your faith, but you probably shouldn't read any further). There are also plenty of reasons why the immigrants occasionally need dubious documents and certificates (as did Gardel when he obtained a certificate of birth in Uruguay), but I'm going to stick with El Zorzal's actual genealogy in this post.
"Heartbroken". "Doña Berta" Gardes mourns her son (and right away, we witness another fringe
theory about their identity...) 

Berthe Gardes with her beloved first cousin Marie "Marissou"
and her sister-in-law Charlotte on one of  her many visits
to her home town, Toulouse. More great imagery here.
The story of Berthe Gardes, her involvement with a cousin, and her illicit child has been retold very similarly both by my Canadian correspondent's in-laws in Paris, and by the Gardes's kin in his native Toulouse, Jean-Claude Barrat and Henri Brune. There is nothing surprising about it, as the Gardeses were a tight-knit clan and Carlos Gardel was their one truly famous cousin, so of course every Gardes family branch knew some details of the story of his birth. But who exactly was the uncle with whom Berthe stayed, and who fathered her child? Generations later, these details differ in different families' accounts.

Elena Irene Gardes believed that Berthe's uncle was her own great-grand Louis Geniez Gardes, who lived in Saint-Geniez d'Olt in Avyeron, some 120 miles from Toulouse. Jean-Claude Barrat insisted that the uncle in question was his 2nd great-grandfather Bruno Marie Barrat (the husband of Berthe's aunt, Jeanne Petronille Gardes) in Toulouse, at 4 rue du Canon d'Arcole. Adding to Barrat's story, his 2nd cousin Henri Brune, a great-grandson of Bruno Marie Barrat and Berthe's aunt, Jeanne Petronille Gardes, told about meeting Gardel in Toulouse in 1934, a year before the Zorzal's untimely death. Henri was 13 years old then, and he remembered Gardel as kind and generous, "a real Argentine spirit". They held a family reunion at the house of Gardel's uncle Jean Gardes at 16 Allées de Barcelone.
4 rue du Canon d'Arcole, Toulouse, the birth place of Charles Romuald Gardes better known as Carlos Gardel
In light of the vital and immigration records, the version of Elena Irene Gardes didn't stand scrutiny. In her story, Berthe Gardes grew up in her ancestors' house, but it turned out that Louis Geniez Gardes, his wife, and their 6 children immigrated from France to Argentina in January 1891, barely a year after Berthe's parents Vital Gardes and Hélène Camarès divorced (on 27 December 1889).  And Berthe was actually in her mid-20s then. And whatever the relation of Louis Geniez Gardes to Berthe might have been, it was much more distant than uncle-niece, anyway. He was a son of Louis Gardes and  Rose Courtial, from Combetelade, a tiny village in Saint-Geniez d'Olt. Berthe's grandparents, however, were Toulouse-born Jean Marie Gardes and Marie Anna Pascale Bonnefoy.

As to the identity of Gardel's secret father, Elena Irene Gardes has not just one but two theories. One is that Berthe was romantically involved with a first cousin, several years her junior. Elena Irene Gardes names this cousin as "Joseph, a seminarian" who supposedly had to leave France as well, and lived in Asia and Africa before settling in Buenos Aires, where his descendant, Marie Thérèse Gardes, still lived. No such person can be found on Gardel's detailed family tree, and we must conclude that the story of Joseph's fatherhood must be an invention of yet another Argentine branch of the Gardeses. But the story of Gardel's father being a first cousin of Berthe, and a son of the uncle with whom she lived after her parents' divorce, is supported by relatives in Toulouse and Paris. This cousin is said to have been Jean Claire Barrat, 3 years younger than Berthe.
Gardel's most detailed family tree, a result of much archive and cemetery work and interviews,
published in 1998 by Christiane Bricheteau
The stigma of first cousin's union must have been so great that Elena Irene Gardes insisted that Berthe's cousin, while romantically involved with her, wasn't her child's actual biological father! The alternative hypothesis, possibly originating from Berthe herself, is that the father was Paul Lasserre "who had to leave Toulouse soon after Berthe got pregnant" and started another family. This Paul Lassere turns out to be a close associate of Gardeses in Toulouse. His mom ran an ironing shop, and both Berthe and her mother Helene, in the fashion business, used it professionally. Paul Lassere  worked as an engineer at Sirven paper mills; his daughter Fanny Lasserre mentioned that Carlos Gardel visited their family when they lived in Nice. My belief is that, rather than being a father of Berthe's child, he was a friend of her family who volunteered to help them bury their secret.

But what about the Parisian Gardeses, the ones who gave the initial nudge for this post? They intensely disapproved of El Zorzal and of tango in general, but were well aware of the secret of Gardel's birth. They also had their own, quite sinister, connection to Argentina...

Jean Gardes is said to have been the most decorated
lieutenant of the French Army in 1944/1945
The parents of colonel Jean Gardes moved to Paris even before WWI. He was born there on October 4, 1914. Between the wars they are said to have amassed a fortune of over 20,000,000 Franks, and owned a number of restaurants in the City of Lights. Jean became a career military officer, fighting the Italians in WWII, then battling anti-Colonialist insurgents in the Indochina and Algiers throughout the 1950s. Trained in psychological operations, he became a leader of the "5th Dept" (psy-ops) in Algiers. Intensely conservative, colonel Jean Gardes disapproved of President De Gaulle's course, and started playing an increasingly active role in the "French Algiers" underground and its "Secret Army Organization", better known for its French acronym OAS. The anti-Gaullist and anti-Left efforts of the OAS seem to have been tightly coordinated with the American secret services; they also started liaising with the Argentine military, which have just recently deposed Juan Peron, as early as in 1957.  The French counterinsurgency fight borrowed the pages from the very movements they fought, focusing on the trifecta of propaganda, ideology (of staunch Catholicism and patriotism, in their case), and intimidation and torture. It was in Algiers where the word "death squads" was first put into circulation.

The cover of Marie-Monique Robin's 2008 book
"Escadrons de la mort, l'école française"
("Death squads, French school") juxtaposes images of
1961 OAS putchists with Argentine Dirty War leaders
In January 1960, colonel Jean Gardes was on the OAS barricades, besieging government buildings. Ordered out of Algiers, he was put on trial, but acquitted and allowed to return. The following spring, OAS-aligned and CIA-supported top military brass staged a coup against De Gaulle, but failed to secure control beyond Algiers. Following the failure of the putsch, colonel Jean Gardes was sentenced to death in July 1961. For a while he fought with the rightist maquis guerrilla in the highlands of Ouarsenis, then escaped to Spain. In May 1962, he was rumored (probably falsely) to have been involved in one of many OAS's assassination plots against President De Gaulle (not the most famous Day of the Jackal attempt - that one happened later in summer). The French government pressed Spain to remove the threat of OAS from its borders, and finally, in February 1963, they reached an accord. Colonel Gardes was detained, along with many other OAS fighters. A month later, he was granted asylum in Argentina.

Only it wasn't quite a humanitarian kind of relief. As a French investigative reporter Marie-Monique Robin found out, the condition of colonel Jean Gardes's entry was that he will help train Argentine counterinsurgency forces. His handler was an Argentine Naval intelligence officer, Federico Lucas Roussillon, and his appointment, at the infamous ESMA. Ostensibly a school of naval mechanics, ESMA was already turning into the death squad central. In a few years, it will emerge as the chief illegal detention and torture facility of the Dirty War, and after the end of the military dictatorship - into the memorial museum of the thousands of Argentines tortured and killed there (it is symbolic that on the same Canada trip, I got listen to Mary-Claire King's talk about her DNA work with the Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo, using genetic testing to reunite grandmothers whose daughters "disappeared" in the terror with their secretly adopted, or rather stolen, grandchildren)

In the late 1950s and the early 1960s the Argentinian security forces were eager to learn from the French counterinsurgency experience. When the influential, and scary, book "La guerre moderne" by the French military ideologist Trinquier has been translated into Spanish, it appeared with a preface explaining that torture is as indispensable in the fight against terrorists and revolutionaries as are assault rifles against enemy infantry or antiaircraft guns against enemy planes.

Colonel Jean Gardes taught psy-ops, reportedly having to resort to a Communist movie denouncing the abuses of the Algerian war as a visual aid (one has to wonder if the Frenchman's secret wish was to be fired from this job...). It doesn't look like his appointment lasted, anyway. Soon, he was resettled in faraway Neuquén, and turned to the family line of business - fine French food, manufacturing paté de foie. 5 years later, he received a pardon and returned to France. The family recalled that he's got back his military rank and decorations. Interestingly, Jean Gardes's grandson followed many of his footsteps, graduating from  l'Ecole Spéciale Militaire de Saint-Cyr and serving in many missions abroad - but he is a prominent member of Gaullist Union today!

I believe that Colonel Jean Gardes's  involvement with the Argentine special forces and ESMA has been short and largely superficial, and that he just wasn't a ruthless henchman they wanted. Still, the comparison between two Gardeses' fate in BsAs, between tango's formative years and its Dark Ages, is sad and uncanny... and I would appreciate it if someone with a better knowledge of the matters helps me understand it better

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